Climate Crisis: This nation is scorching in a heatwave and wildfires, but returning to planetary coal

Climate Crisis: This nation is scorching in a heatwave and wildfires, but returning to planetary coal

Mitsaris, whose father also worked in coal mining, bought 44 acres of vineyards. But he now wonders if he made the right choice – Kohl refuses to stop here.

“I’m afraid of the future,” he said. “I have two little daughters to raise.”

Just a year ago, Greece was confident that it could shut down all existing coal-fired power plants by 2023. It planned to build a final coal-fired power plant this year in the broader region Mitsaris lives in, western Macedonia, which generates more than half of the country’s electricity. The new facility, Ptolemaida 5, would then in 2025 be powered by natural gas, another polluting fossil fuel but generally less carbon-intensive than the lignite found in this part of Greece.

This whole timeline has now gone up in smoke.

Greece is battling the fire that forced hundreds to evacuate on the island of LesvosThe deadline for phasing out coal at all existing power plants has been pushed back from 2023 to 2025, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has recently indicated that the new power plant at Ptolemaida will realistically need to burn coal until at least 2028. And Greece plans to increase its coal output by 50% over the next two years to make up for gas shortages while Vladimir Putin tightens flows into the EU.

The changes are already striking. In June 2021, coal generated 253.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity. This June, coal accounted for 468.1 GWh, nearly double that.

And that’s while the country has been battling wildfires on the mainland and its islands, fueled by a searing heatwave supercharged by climate change – largely due to human burning of fossil fuels like coal. The fires have reduced homes to rubble, people have been rescued from beaches and business owners on islands like Lesbos are facing an economically painful holiday season.

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

Important life decisions such as where to live and work are difficult to make when government plans are constantly changing. Leaving the village where he was born and raised is currently not an option for Mitsaris.

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

The Greek government is trying to convince people that their return to coal is only temporary. But the coal resurgence is luring people in western Macedonia back into the industry.

Energy company PPC has offered steady employment to thousands of people in western Macedonia, where almost one in five is unemployed.

Here — where everyone calls coal a “boon and a curse” — a return to fossil fuel can mean the difference between staying and going.

So many have already migrated to bigger cities or even moved abroad to find a new life.

A village in decline

Greece was a success story when it came to phasing out coal. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Greece relied on coal for only about 9% of its energy supply, up from 25% six years ago. It was the first country in the coal-dependent Balkans to announce a short-term target to end fossil fuel use.

But the transition has always had its challenges — most notably, what opportunities can the country offer ex-coal-town workers?

In western Macedonia – which supplies 80% of Greece’s coal – the PPC has expropriated dozens of villages to mine the coal beneath them and relocated entire communities to the periphery. And they were the lucky ones.

A general view of Akrini village covered by snow in winter.

In this awkward interim period, where coal is still being mined but whose years are numbered, the residents of the village of Akrini are stuck, even if everything is collapsing around them.

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

The PPC told CNN in an email that they were not responsible for the people in the village and did not answer follow-up questions when they were presented with the law, which says they are entitled to resettlement assistance until 2021.

Charalambos Mouratidis, 26, doesn’t really know how to proceed.

Like Mitsaris, he has been trying to start a new life after quitting his job at the PPC in a coal mine where his father also worked. But Mouratidis never had the same job security as his father. He worked for eight months on a short-term contract cleaning the ash from the machines at the mine. The instability, low pay, and severe health effects of the toxic ash pushed him out of the industry.

A general view of the hill where Charalambos Mouratidis' farm is located in Akrini, with a coal-fired power plant in the background.

Today he runs a cattle ranch perched on a hill above Akrini, with smoke and steam rising from the chimneys and cooling towers of the coal-fired power plants in the background.

In addition to his livestock, he works a part-time job at a solar cell company, typically working 13-hour days between them to make ends meet.

Working for the solar panel company is a green job that provides Mouratidis with an additional income. But solar expansion is also taking up more and more land, leaving less for cultivation or grazing, making it nearly impossible to get a permit to expand farmland in Akrini, he said.

Apart from the solar farms, all other infrastructure projects in Akrini have been cancelled. The village is left to die slowly.

“I started farming hoping to have a more stable future and now even that effort is at stake,” Mouratidis said. “Everyone has come to a dead end in this village.”

What’s next

The Greek government has drawn up a €7.5 billion ($7.9 billion) plan to help the country transform from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green, innovative nation. His Just Transition Development Plan, as it’s known throughout the European Union, has received €1.63 billion in EU funding.

Western Macedonia is a focus of the plan and should receive ample funding, including to become a renewable energy hub in the country. And while the plan is welcomed by many people here, many doubt it can be achieved in the six years before the last coal-fired power plant is due to be shut down.

Mouratidis is skeptical that the money will help him at all.

The exterior of Charalambos Mouratidis' farm in Akrini.

“I’m not sure much of this 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 most of it will stay with those who manage those funds,” he said. “History has shown us that. Even during Covid-19, support for large companies and corporations has been much higher than the support we have received.”

But not all hope is lost. As many workers switch from coal to farming, some EU support is seeping through. A few kilometers from Akrini, Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis try to create sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs in the wake of the green transition and are willing to engage in sheep and goat farming.

Through their Proud Farm initiative, they act as incubators for Greeks who want to farm in a sustainable way, giving them access to training and knowledge about the latest technologies available to them. Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis, founders of "Proud Farm Group of Farmers"  Initiative.

“We want to create a network of self-sustaining farms, with respect for the environment and animals, that requires very little capital from new farmers,” Paschalidis said while his sheep bleated in the background.

Koltsidas said he wanted to tell local people that agriculture is not what it used to be and can offer a stable future. “It doesn’t require the effort of the old days where the farmer had to be on the farm all day grazing the animals or milking them with his hands,” he said.

“Those thinking about going back to coal should look at any regions that are thriving without coal,” he said. “There’s no need to get stuck in these outdated models of PPC.”