Fact-finding mission to North Rhine-Westphalia

The Catholic Church in Austria and Germany is taking concrete action on renewable energies and energy efficiency, motivated by economic, social, health and ethical arguments. It understands ecology to be the moral responsibility of every human being. How can the Church help us enrich the conversation on addressing ecological challenges in Poland? Is it possible to build broad but effective and durable forums for Poland’s various social groups – the Church, local governments, society – in order to work to understand each other as we respond to global environmental challenges, and to focus particularly on an inclusive approach to sustainable energy policy?

Poland faces the difficult challenge of gradually reducing the role of fossil fuels in its economy. In regions which have been greatly dependent on heavy industry and coal mining for decades (such as Silesia), or where local and regional economies are based on brown coal, modernisation has either already begun or soon will, and it must take into account not only ecology but, above all, their local social and economic conditions. The process of working out how and in what directions this modernisation will go must involve all social groups – and those most sensitive to the changes must be guaranteed an influence on the decisions. Collaborative thought must be given to the potential and opportunities arising from such comprehensive economic and social change, but the possible risks also need to be made clear. For the residents of these places, working in the mining sector is a key element of their culture and identity, which is also strongly associated with Catholic values and the role of the Church in everyday life. Considering the importance of the Catholic Church in shaping public debate and social attitudes in Poland, it is worth considering how active it can be in the debate on ecological modernisation and raise awareness in Polish society through both its teaching and practical examples of action. How therefore can the Church effectively join the debate on the challenges and opportunities for ecological modernisation, taking into account both the teachings of the Pope and the social opportunities of such a process? How can it protect residents’ sense of identity while at the same time working to improve their lives with decent living and working conditions, clean nature and surroundings, and health improvements?

In October 2017, seeking answers to these questions, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, under the patronage of the Święto Stworzenia (Season of Creation) website and in partnership with EnergieAgentur. NRW, organised a fact-finding mission to North Rhine-Westphalia entitled “Challenges and opportunities for comprehensive economic and social transformation and energy transformation (Energiewende) in Germany”. North Rhine-Westphalia is a region where heavy industry dominated for decades, and it is now undergoing a social and economic modernisation which is also encompassing environmental issues. Journalists from the Polish Catholic media, and representatives of both the Catholic Church itself and its associated institutions whose work puts them face to face with social, economic and environmental issues, visited places that personally went through that transformation and experienced its challenges, and that are now positive examples of modernisation.

They talked about the economic aspects, but above all about the social, cultural and identity issues, about workplaces and unemployment, about the involvement of various social agents – including the Catholic Church – both in cities and in rural areas, and about the possibilities to build a dialogue that goes beyond divisions. They spoke about how to exploit the process of structural change as an opportunity for development. The Ministry of Economy, Innovation, Digitisation and Energy of North Rhine-Westphalia presented the strategy for implementing Energiewende in this region, including the economic and social aspects of its activities to date and its plans. Participants also visited the “climate community of the future” – Saerbeck – a small agricultural and industrial town whose inhabitants set themselves the goal of achieving climate neutrality and energy independence with the collaboration of all social groups, including the Church. The communal bio-energy park not only generates energy from wind turbines and a biogas plant, but is also a place where children, adolescents and adults can learn practical knowledge about RES. A meeting with representatives of the Archdiocese of Cologne on Church initiatives to promote sustainable development and energy generation revealed the surprising complexity of their operations – the Archdiocese not only engages its parishes in monitoring energy consumption and developing energy efficiency activities – it also undertakes very specific measures, such as supplying its employees with bicycles, including electric bikes. Caritas supports the less well-off people, providing energy-efficiency devices and education on energy efficiency habits.

One unforgettable experience was a visit to the Garzweiler lignite mine – a trip through the mine, but also through the towns where residents were forcibly displaced because they lived in planned mining areas. In Herten, which years ago, with three coal mines, was among the largest coal mining cities in Europe, conversations touched on development opportunities for new industries, innovative energy technologies and entrepreneurship, but above all on the social challenges associated with mine closure – attempts to secure new employers, the retraining of former miners, and how the family model and architectural structure of the city changed. Essen was the first mining city ever to be crowned Green Capital of Europe (by the European Commission in 2017) and not only for its environmental performance but also for growth and residents’ quality of life, and there discussions centred on citizens’ involvement in “greening” the city, sustainable transport and anti-smog action.

Church organisations and institutions in Germany and Austria are among the most important agents in the economic and social modernisation that comes from transformations in energy, in terms of both teaching and direct action. In Poland too, recent years have seen Church groups taking a greater interest in renewable energy sources. And so it is worth engaging in a discussion that goes beyond the purely economic motivations of such activities, and trying to enrich it with values and ethical rationales.

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