Climate crisis: this country is scorched by heat and forest fires, but returns to burning coal on the planet

Mitsaris, whose father was also a coal miner, bought 44 acres of vineyard. But now he wonders if he made the right choice – the coal here refuses to leave.

“I fear for the future,” he said. “I have two little daughters to raise.”

Just a year ago, Greece was confident that it could close all existing coal-fired power plants by 2023. This year, she planned to build the last coal-fired plant in the wider region where Mitsaris lives, in Western Macedonia, which produces more than half of the country’s electricity. The new plant, Ptolemaida 5, will run on natural gas in 2025, another polluting fossil fuel but generally less carbon-intensive than lignite or lignite found in this part of Greece.

This whole timeline is now in smoke.

Greece fights fire that forced hundreds to evacuate on Lesvos island
The deadline for phasing out coal at all existing power plants has been pushed back from 2023 to 2025, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently suggested that the new power plant at Ptolemais would realistically need to burn coal until at least 2028. Greece is planning increase coal production by 50% over the next two years to make up for the lack of natural gas while Vladimir Putin turns on the taps to the EU.

The changes are already visible. In June 2021, coal produced 253.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity. In June this year, coal accounted for 468.1 GWh, almost double that.

And this at a time when the country is battling wildfires on the mainland and its islands, caused by scorching heat, exacerbated by climate change, which is mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels such as coal by people. Fires have reduced homes to ashes, people have been rescued from beaches, and business owners on islands like Lesbos are facing an economically painful holiday season.

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

It is difficult to make important life choices, such as where to live and work, when the government’s plans are constantly changing. It is not an option for Mitsaris to leave the village where he was born and raised.

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

The Greek government is trying to convince people that the return to coal is temporary. But the resurgence of coal is tempting Western Macedonians to return to the industry.

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

Here, where everyone calls coal a “blessing and a curse,” a return to fossil fuels could decide whether to stay or go.

Many have already left for big cities or even abroad to find a new life.

Village in decline

As far as moving away from coal, Greece has been something of a success story. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Greece relied only on coal for about 9% of its energy supply, compared to 25% just six years ago. It was the first coal-dependent country in the Balkans to announce a short-term goal to phase out fossil fuels.

But the transition period has always had its problems – basically, what opportunities can the country offer to the former workers of the coal towns?

In Western Macedonia, which provides 80% of Greek coal, the checkpoint has expropriated dozens of villages to mine coal beneath them, moving entire communities to the periphery. And they were lucky.

General view of Akrini village covered with snow in winter.

During this awkward interim, when coal is still being mined but its years are numbered, the villagers of Akrini are unable to move even as everything around them collapses.

Residents here have been arguing with the PPC for more than a decade, saying they are entitled to compensation to help them move out of a village that has been exposed to high levels of ash from the coal mines that surround them 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 it was not responsible for the villagers and did not respond to further questions when it was presented with legislation saying they were eligible for relocation assistance by 2021.

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

Like Mitsaris, he longed to start a new life after leaving his job at the coal mine checkpoint where his father also worked. But Muratidis never had the job security of his father. He worked in shifts for eight months on a short-term contract, removing ashes from machines inside the mine. Instability, low wages, and the severe effects of toxic ash on his health pushed him out of the industry.

General view of the hill where Charalambos Muratidis was located.  The farm is located in Akrini, with a coal plant in the background.

Now he runs a livestock farm that sits on a hill overlooking Akrini, with smoke and steam billowing from the chimneys and cooling towers of the coal-fired power plants around him in the background.

In addition to farming, he works part-time at a solar panel company, usually working 13-hour days to make ends meet.

Working for a solar panel company is an environmentally friendly job that provides Muratidis with additional income. But the solar expansion is also grabbing more and more land, leaving less land for cultivation or grazing, so getting permission to expand farmland in Akrini is next to impossible, he said.

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

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

What will happen next

The Greek government has come up with a €7.5 billion ($7.9 billion) plan to help the country transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green innovation nation. His Just Transition Development Plan, known in the European Union, has received 1.63 billion euros in EU funding.

Western Macedonia is the focus of the plan and needs to receive a lot of money, in part to become the country’s renewable energy hub. And while many here welcome the plan, many doubt that all of this can be realized six years before the last coal-fired power plant shuts down.

Muratidis doubts the money will help him at all.

Exterior view of Charalambos Mouratidis' farm in Akrini.

“I’m not sure that most of them will reach people like me who are in small business. Part of the money will remain with those who openly support the current government, and most will remain with those who manage these funds,” he said. “This is what history has shown us. Even during Covid-19, the support given to large companies and enterprises has been much higher than the support we have received.”

But not all hope is lost. As many workers switch from coal to agriculture, some EU support is seeping in. Just a few kilometers from Akrini, Nikos Koltsidas and Statis Pashalidis are trying to find sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs due to the transition to a green environment and want to start raising sheep and goats.

Through them Proud Farm Initiative, they act as incubators for Greeks who want to engage in sustainable agriculture, offering them access to training and knowledge about the latest technologies available to them.
Nikos Koltsidas and Statis Pashalidis, founders "Proud Farm Group of Farmers"  initiative.

“We want to create a network of self-sufficient farms with respect for the environment and animals, which will require very little capital from new farmers,” Paschalidis said, with his sheep bleating in the background.

Koltsidas said he wanted to convey to the local population that agriculture is no longer what it used to be and can provide a sustainable future. “It does not require the effort that he did in the past when the farmer had to be on the farm all day tending the animals or milking them with his hands,” he said.

“Those who are thinking about returning to work with coal should pay attention to all the regions that prosper without it,” he said. “There is no need to dwell on these outdated PPC models.”