Climate Crisis: This nation is raging in a heat wave and wildfires, but it’s back to the coal that’s baking the planet


West Macedonia, Greece
CNN

Dimitris Mitsars opens his garage door and the scent of fermented grapes emerges, as the first morning light bounces off dozens of steel cabinets. Mitsaris and his family live here, in Agios Panteleimonas, a mountain village of no more than 800 people in northern Greece, and they have turned their home into a small winery. “I don’t have electricity here yet,” Mitsaris says with a laugh.

It’s funny to Mitsaris because until December of last year, the 40-year-old had spent 17 years of his life working in coal mines for the state-run Public Power Corporation (PPC) to keep the lights in people’s homes. He finally gave up coal for wine, realizing that fossil fuels were running out.

Mitsaris, whose father also worked in coal mines, bought 44 acres of vineyards. But now he wonders if he made the right decision – coal here refuses to quit.

“I am afraid of the future,” he said. “I have two young daughters to raise.”

Coal is the most polluting fossil fuel and the single largest contributor to the climate crisis, and Greece has been trying hard to get rid of it. But the country – along with other European nations – is delaying these phase-out plans in response to the energy crisis, which has turned into a full-blown crisis since Russia launched its war on Ukraine.

Just a year ago, Greece was confident that it could shut down all of its existing coal-burning plants by 2023. It planned to build one last coal plant this year in the wider region where Mitsaris lives, West Macedonia, which generates more than half of the country’s electricity. The new plant, Ptolemaida 5, will then run in 2025 with natural gas, another polluting fossil fuel, but generally less carbon-intensive than lignite, or brown coal, found in this part of Greece.

This entire schedule is now in smoke.

The deadline to end the use of coal at all existing plants has been pushed back from 2023 to 2025, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently suggested that the new Ptolimaida plant would actually need to burn coal until at least 2028. Greece plans to increase its coal production by 50% over the next two years to compensate for the scarcity of natural gas, as Vladimir Putin tightened the water taps flowing into the European Union.

Already the changes are stark. In June 2021, coal produced 253.9 gigawatt-hours of electricity. In June of this year, coal was responsible for 468.1 GWh, nearly double that.

And that’s as the country battles wildfires on the mainland and its islands, fueled by a scorching heat wave fueled by climate change – which mostly comes from humans burning fossil fuels like coal. Fires have left homes under ash, people have been rescued from beaches, and business owners on islands like Lesbos face an economically painful holiday season.

Dimitris Matisaris' father, a retired PPC worker, fills a bottle of wine at his son's winery.

Major life choices, such as where to live and work, are difficult to make when government plans are constantly changing. For Mitsaris, leaving his village where he was born and raised is not an option at the moment.

My wife used to work in a dairy, which was also closed a few years ago. They offered her a job in Athens but at that time my salary was enough to support the whole family, so we decided to stay.” “If I had known that we would end up in the situation we are in now, I would have gone to Athens at that time.”

The Greek government is trying to convince people that its return to coal is only temporary. But the resurgence of coal is tempting people in West Macedonia to return to industry.

The energy company PPC has provided stable jobs to thousands of people in West Macedonia, where approximately 1 in 5 is unemployed.

Here—where everyone refers to coal as a “blessing and a curse”—a return to fossil fuels can make all the difference between staying and leaving.

Already, many have left for larger cities, or even moved abroad, to find a new life.

In terms of moving away from coal, Greece has been a success story. Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Greece relied solely on coal for about 9% of its energy supply, down from 25% just six years ago. It was the first coal-dependent Balkan country to announce a near-term goal to end the use of fossil fuels.

But the transition has always had its challenges — essentially, what opportunities can the state provide for former workers in coal towns?

In West Macedonia – which supplies 80% of Greece’s coal – PPC has expropriated dozens of villages so it can extract coal beneath them, moving entire communities to the periphery. And they were lucky.

A general view of the village of Akreni covered with snow during the winter.

During this intervening phase – when coal is still mined but its years are numbered – the residents of the village of Akreni find themselves unable to move, even as everything around them collapses.

Residents here have been in a dispute for more than a decade with PPC, saying they deserve compensation that will help them move out of the village, which for years has been exposed to high levels of ash from the coal operations that surround them. They have successfully lobbied for the right to resettlement, a right now enshrined in the 2011 law.

PPC told CNN in an email that it was not responsible for the villagers, and did not answer follow-up questions when presented with the law stating that they are entitled to resettlement assistance by 2021.

Charalambos Mouratidis, 26, doesn’t really know what to do next.

Like Metsaris, he sought to build a new life after leaving his job with PPC in a coal mine, where his father also worked. But Al-Mouratidi did not have the same kind of job security as his father. He worked in shifts for eight months on a short-term contract cleaning ash from machinery inside the mine. Instability, low wages, and the heavy impact of toxic ash on his health prompted him to leave the industry.

General view of the hill where the Charalambos Mouratidis farm is located in Akrini, with the coal plant in the background.

He now runs a cattle ranch, perched on a hill overlooking Akreni where plumes of smoke and steam billow from the chimneys and cooling towers of the surrounding coal plants in the background.

On top of raising livestock, he works a second job at a solar panel company, usually spending 13 hours a day in between to make ends meet.

Working for a solar panel company is an environmentally friendly business that provides Mratidis some extra income. The expansion of solar energy is also taking more and more land, he said, leaving little for farming or grazing, so getting permission to expand the farmland in Ukraini is almost impossible.

Besides solar farms, all other infrastructure projects in Okreni have been cancelled. The village is left to slowly die.

“I started farming, hoping for some kind of a more stable future, and now even that effort is at stake,” Moratidis said. “Everyone has reached a dead end in this village.”

The Greek government has drawn up a 7.5 billion euro ($7.9 billion) plan to help the country transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to an innovative green country. The Plan for the Development of the Fair Transition, as it is known throughout the European Union, received 1.63 billion euros in EU funding.

West Macedonia is central to the plan and should receive a lot of money, in part to become a hub for the country’s renewable energy sources. And while many people welcome the plan here, many doubt it could all come true in the six years before the last coal plant stopped.

Al-Mouratidi doubts the money will ever help him.

Exterior of the farm of Charalambos Muratidis in Akreni.

“I’m not sure a lot of it will reach people like me, who run small businesses. Some of the money will end up with those who openly support the current government and the majority will stay with those who run this money.” That’s what history has shown us. Even during Covid-19, the support provided to businesses and major corporations has been much higher than the support we have received.”

But all hope was not lost. With many workers switching from coal to agriculture, some EU support is flowing through. Just a few kilometers from Akreni, Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis are trying to find sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs in the green transition, and who are willing to engage in sheep and goat farming.

Through their Proud Farm initiative, they act as incubators for Greeks who want to grow in sustainable ways, giving them access to training and knowledge about the latest technologies available to them.

Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Bachalides, Founders

“We want to create a network of farms that are self-sustaining, in terms of the environment and the animals, that will require very little capital from the new farmers,” Pachalides said, as he heard the sound of his sheep in the background.

Coltsidas said he wanted to spread the word to the locals that farming is not what it used to be, and can provide a stable future. “It doesn’t take the effort he put in in the past, as the farmer had to stay on the farm all day, tending the animals or milking them with their hands,” he said.

“For those who are considering returning to work in coal should look at all the areas that thrive without it,” he said. “There is no need to stay stuck in these old PPC models.”

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