Addressing air quality in the ‘black triangle’ of Europe, challenging permits and funding of coal plants and mines, linking the fate of Pacific islands to electricity production in the Czech Republic. The legal work of Frank Bold to preserve the climate has some remarkable features. “Creating precedents is essential.”
Many campaigns against coal are about depicting power plants and mines as dangerous for the climate and for our health, urging politicians to act and companies to take responsibility. Frank Bold – a law organization, headquartered in the Czech Republic but operating in three EU member states – takes a different approach: focused legal strategy to move towards a low carbon society.
Kristína Šabová, head of the responsible energy section at Frank Bold is deeply involved in the European fight against coal. At a two-day conference for coal campaigners in Brussels, where she acted as a moderator and gave a fascinating presentation on the legal reality behind the coal industry, using charm and wit, we managed to see the Slovak-born lawyer in action. Because the programme was full, we managed to ‘sit down’ a couple days later via Skype – one of the most essential tools for campaigners to work together.
Frank Bold (not a name but an expression) is a purpose driven firm that uses the power of business and non-profit approaches to solve social and environmental problems. In the case of the climate, it promotes the legal and regulatory environment for renewables and stop the development of fossil fuel projects. “These are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Šabová. “Developing new fossil fuel installations will mean they will stay active for fifty years, well past the deadline for the world in 2050 when we have to stopped burning fossil fuels altogether.”
Her team prepares legal cases, mainly on coal litigation. “The power is to be found in the legal world,” she says decisively. “Legal strategies are one of the strongest to stop climate change. If you know the system, you can go high and push governments more effectively to act.” The day before the interview, the Dutch NGO ‘Urgenda’ won a court case in the Netherlands, in which the judge ordered the Dutch government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions further to 25% by 2020.
Pick your targets
Unlike in the United States, where the Sierra Club foundation has hundreds of lawyers (successfully) working on coal court cases, European climate NGOs have limited resources. Therefore Frank Bold – and others – pick their targets carefully to create a ‘multiplier effect’ and get strategic cases.
Some of the most striking outcomes of the organization’s work is the case on the Prunéřov power plant. Back in 2011, a ‘transboundary environmental impact assessment’ was used by the Federal States of Micronesia to challenge the Prunéřov project, as this group of islands may disappear off the map because of climate change. For the first time, countries used this legal tool to assess transboundary impacts rather than ‘simple’ border issues. Together with Greenpeace, Frank Bold provided legal support to this initiative and the Czech government had to respond.
Other successful outcomes were in Romania, where a EBRD loan for a reconstruction of a plant was postponed after a joint campaign with Bankwatch. And in Poland, the opening of the Gubin/Bordy mine is delayed for (some) years as the investor still does not have the essential permits.
Helping NGOs and individuals
In the Czech Republic and the aforementioned cases, most collaboration was with NGOs like Greenpeace, Hnutí Duha (Friends of the Earth Czech Republic). But Frank Bold also assists active citizens who have issues with corruption, maladministration and damages to the environment and who want to achieve positive change in their neighbourhood,. “We have a team called ‘service for citizens’,” Šabová explains. “For instance, if a company, private developer pushes a project in protected areas and the local officials are reluctant to stand their grounds and reject the proposal, this affects the public interest. We support number of local initiatives or individuals in these kind of cases. From all the requests we take the ones with a strong public interest component and provide more extensive legal support.”
For the lawyer, it is striking to see that democracy and participation are now an important aspect of the legal work. “If you come from Eastern Europe, large energy companies are state owned and they often have huge corruption and governance issues. So there is a lot of space for decentralisation of power to the people, and opening the market.”
Frank Bold is also active in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria and there the support is more for national NGOs. “If the national NGO has a case but doesn’t know how to link it to European Union legislation, we can help them with pointing out the right directive, give details on illegal state aid or on pollution limits.”
Neglecting the law
The Czech Republic is one of the problematic countries in Europe when it comes to coal. Partly due to its past as an industrial powerhouse in the Eastern Bloc in the Soviet era, a lot of coal power plants and mines are scattered across the country (especially in the border areas with Germany and Poland). The country has so much coal and nuclear capacity that it is one of the biggest exporters of electricity in Europe. And as it burns lignite instead of hard coal for producing electricity, whole valleys are destroyed, including the villages, to create and empty open pit mines.
Despite being a member of the EU for more than ten years, the Czech Republic still gets a lot of derogations from EU law on environmental standards. “Several central European countries form a strong block in Brussels,” says Kristína Šabová. “The state owned energy companies are very connected to the decision-makers on various levels. So when there is a push for stricter directives in the EU, the government quickly gets persuaded to negotiate looser EU rules.” And this works well, according to Šabová. “In a majority of the derogations the Czech Republic was included.”
The result of this entanglement between industry and politics is that the Czech Republic “lacks ambition” on climate and energy transition. “We have no reason to become like Denmark, especially if you are in a group of countries that wants to keep business as usual as long as possible.”
So what about rule of law and the balance of power? The lawyer has to laugh. “Do you really want to know? We are not the Balkans, but here, procedures can take ages. Some cases we started in 2009 are still ongoing. But in the end, you can get your argumentation accepted by the court. You just have to get through all stages, it is unlikely that we win a case at the lower level.”
Cleaning the black triangle
One of the priorities for Frank Bold is addressing the air pollution within the ‘black triangle’ – the regions of heavy industry of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic that form one region and historically form one of the most polluted places in Europe. The black triangle used to be defined by industry like steel mills, chemical installations, coal plants and mining. A part of this industry is now laid to rest, but the region continues to blacken the sky and the earth.
“We are raising the issue,” says Šabová. “The Czech Republic is accusing Poland for many years to cause air pollution. Committees of the countries are established, politicians shake hands and call it a priority, but in practical terms, not much has changed.”
She puts hope in efforts from the scientific community that has initiated a number of projects to measure the pollution levels and locate the sources. These data can then be used by Frank Bold and others for legal action or campaigning. “We are getting a clear picture of the causes and the health impacts,” adds Šabová. “So we are now going to challenge air quality management plans on this side of the border. The European Commission is already taking steps in infringement procedures. And Frank Bold is pressing the government, to get them to include state of art requirements for heavy industry installations and power plants. If the ministry does not produce a feasible strategy, we initiate legal actions together with the local communities.”