Research reveals a surprising link between socio-economic indicators and sustainability transition

Last week, academic institutions part of Climate-KIC’s initiative on transition in high CO2-emitting regions presented an analysis of key socio-economic indicators. The study allows to draw parallels between regions following similar change pathways and suggests there is a connection between socio-economic factors and the transition to a low-carbon economy.


Many European regions face the challenge of phasing out coal energy as fast as possible in order to meet the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement while providing new economic perspectives for people who currently depend on coal sector jobs. Many coal mining regions are also some of the most polluted in Europe and considerably contribute to the Union’s CO2 emissions. In December 2017, the European Commission launched the platform on coal regions in transition, to support a Europe-wide exchange of ideas on how coal mining regions can modernise their economies and phase out coal energy while creating new income perspectives for workers and communities.

The analysis of coal regions presented last week during the 5th meeting of the platform for coal regions in transition has been conducted in the context of Climate-KIC’s Re-Industrialise programme, which aims to transition high-emitting regions to low-carbon innovation hotspots. It drew on work led by the University of Bologna, and supported by Provadis Hochschule and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate. The study team led by Professor Mura of the University of Bologna used indicators such as industry data on CO2 emissions from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and socio-economic indicators from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm, to map coal regions’ carbon emission intensity.

The results were fed into a publicly available interactive web-based tool for data analysis and visualisation, which helps highlight different groups of coal regions with similar transition pathways, breaking down and filtering data both at State and regional levels.

A digital transition

Professor Mura’s dataset included socio-economic figures such as GDP, population, digital development and education and found that regions who are on a transition towards decarbonisation share a few specific traits. At this stage, the main finding of the research is that factors such as digital development and education levels may play a critical role in decreasing CO2 emissions and supporting transition efforts in coal-mining regions. Even before the mines are closed.

Digital development in particular seems to have a strong correlation to decrease in carbon emissions. The indicator is a compound of different variables such as access to fast Internet, and developments and investments in the sector by both public and private actors.

By focusing on GDP variation between 2008 and 2016, Professor Mura was also able to establish that some coal regions shared similar transition pathways, paving the way for better-targeted and more intensive exchanges of transition experiences between regions. The outlook for Europe seemed positive overall, as 23 out of 35 of all regions where mining is still an existing industry saw their CO2 emission levels decrease, while the overall wealth of the regions, as measured by their GDP, increased between 2008 and 2016.

As for future developments, an idea being considered is to measure CO2 emissions via data provided by Copernicus,  an EU-backed network of satellites and the largest space data provider in the world. This would made the measurement of carbon emissions more accurate, since it will be obtained via satellite imagery rather than reported by companies.