Can Mining Regions Vote in Favour of Climate Policies?

Diane Bolet, Fergus Green, Mikel González-Eguino

6 mins - 10 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

The climate summit in Dubai highlights how far we are still far from coming in line with the Paris Agreement. Moving away from fossil fuels has proven to be a major challenge, not only technically and economically but also socially and politically. 

The benefits and opportunities of climate policies, although real, are perceived as distant in time or unspecific, while the costs are more clearly and imminently visible in some sectors and regions. This is the case in coal mining regions where jobs are at risk. Faced with these difficulties, can governments deploy ambitious climate policies and win the support of voters, especially in the most affected regions?

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In a study recently published in the American Political Science Review on the closure of coal mining in Spain, we show that, under certain circumstances, this is indeed possible. The study provides one of the first global pieces of evidence of the electoral effect of just transition policies. Specifically, the study analyses the effects of the Just Transition Agreement in the municipalities of Asturias, Aragón, and León signed by mining companies, trade unions and the government on 24 October 2018, shortly before the general elections in April 2019. The agreement entailed the closure of 28 coal mines and included compensation for workers and investments in the mining districts.  

Our study allows us to separate the electoral results of the municipalities located in the mining areas from the rest of the municipalities and thus obtain the differential impact of the policy. Although an electoral cost for the incumbent party would have been expected, our results show that, on the contrary, support for the PSOE in mining municipalities grew significantly (by 1.8 percentage points) compared to similar non-mining municipalities, an encouraging result for other regions.

To explore the mechanisms behind these results, the study is complemented by a media analysis with a series of in-depth interviews with people who participated in the negotiation of the agreement, with those responsible for this issue in the different political parties and with other relevant local actors. The agreement debated and voted on 22 January 2019 in the ‘Congreso de los Diputados’ was supported by PSOE, Ciudadanos, ERC, and PNV, but did not have the support of PP, Podemos, or Equo, for different reasons.

The media analysis shows that if we compare the coverage of just transition from January 2018 to June 2019, regional newspapers in the mining regions contained five times more articles about it than national newspapers. It also confirms that 18.8% of all articles on just transition mentioned “PSOE” or “Teresa Ribera” or “Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica” or similar, while only 2% of such articles mentioned the main opposition party (PP), and only 1.8% mentioned Podemos or Equo. In other words, the just transition agenda was a relevant issue in the mining regions and was mainly associated with the action of the PSOE.

Regarding the reasons for these effects, the interviews highlighted the importance of the Just Transition approach being perceived as credible and based on the honesty of all parties. It was relevant for many interviewees that the agreement not only offered compensation to workers, but also introduced concrete instruments (Just Transition Agreements) for the development of new industrial projects. 

Ultimately, our hypothesis is that just transition was successful because it was not only a matter of compensation, but also a commitment to regional development that was perceived as credible in the mining regions and where the decision-making process and the recognition of the identity and contribution of these regions was taken into account.

The interviews also suggest that in the PSOE’s electoral drive the intermediary role of the trade unions, who negotiated and eventually supported the agreement, was important. The miners’ unions acted either by publicly defending the agreement to their members and the public, or at least by not opposing it and focusing on implementing the Just Transition Agreements.

Similarly, the interviews conducted show that the promises of some of the opposition parties advocating the continuation of coal mining activities even beyond 2040 were in fact perceived as unrealistic or not credible, as the EU was forcing the closure, so they probably had an electoral penalty.

To what extent can our findings be generalised elsewhere? After all, in the Spanish case, the coal industry was uncompetitive, the EU had set a closure date and the workers directly affected were already very few (1,700 direct workers). These factors undoubtedly shaped the negotiations, as the strength of the companies and the unions in the negotiations was limited, which increased the chances of reaching a tripartite agreement, something that was also very beneficial for the subsequent closure of the coal plants.

In this sense, our findings should be generalisable to other geographical contexts where (i) carbon-intensive sectors have the organisational capacity to be reliable partners in social dialogue and (ii) these sectors are in a weaker bargaining position due to limited profitability prospects. Just transition strategies will also be more feasible (iii) when the government has sufficient fiscal capacity to commit offsets and investments, and finally (iv) when there are left-wing parties in government and these parties have close links with trade unions. This suggests that successful just transition strategies are more likely to emerge in countries where such links exist (e.g. the UK, Australia, Norway, and Germany) than in those where they do not (e.g. the US and Canada).

If anything, our findings underline the value of addressing these transitions with a broad social justice approach that encompasses development strategies at the industrial, regional, social, or labour level. While it stands to reason that workers will strongly defend their jobs, even when the sector’s economic prospects are bleak, and are sceptical about the creation of new “green” jobs, such just transition strategies as the one tested in Spain can help provide a dignified, hopeful way out elsewhere and may even ultimately be supported by citizens at the ballot box.
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