EU’s new energy strategy faces doubts

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Tidal electricity generator awaiting installation: Europe is rich in renewable energy potential Image: MyName (Fundy) via Wikimedia Commons

Tidal electricity generator awaiting installation: Europe is rich in renewable energy potential
Image: MyName (Fundy) via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The European Union has been a world leader in establishing binding targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building up renewable energy supplies. But as officials in Brussels unveil a new energy strategy, questions are being asked about Europe’s commitment to combatting climate change.

LONDON, 21 January – Governments have stated their positions. Legions of lobbyists have presented final arguments. On 22 January the European Commission is scheduled to release its latest comprehensive climate and energy package, focused on developments in the energy sector up to the year 2030.

Negotiations on the package have been long and arduous: power utilities and big industrial conglomerates within the EU have been particularly vociferous in their opposition to a further set of emissions reductions or renewables targets which, they say, will seriously undermine the EU’s economic competitiveness.

Key issues to be announced by the Commission are 2030 targets for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and the renewables share of the EU’s energy mix and – crucially – whether these targets will be made legally binding on states within the union.  Measures aimed at achieving greater energy efficiency within the EU will also form part of the new package.

Present EU legislation sets binding targets of a 20% reduction in GHG emissions from 1990 levels and achieving a 20% share of renewables in energy consumption by 2020. The legislation also sets an indicative, non-binding, target of making a 20% improvement in energy efficiency.

The big question now is at what level the Commission proposes to set its 2030 targets: while many countries in the EU, including Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, support a binding target of a 40% cut in emissions by 2030, others – including Poland with its large coal industry – say that target is too high.

Meanwhile green groups and non-governmental organisations say the EU must be more ambitious. They say a 2030 emissions reduction target of at least 50% is needed if the internationally agreed goal of limiting the rise in the global average temperature to 2°C over pre-industrial levels by 2050 is to be achieved and runaway climate change prevented.

Resistance to renewables

They also say the EU cannot expect cutbacks on GHG emissions by other nations – particularly by high carbon emitters such as China and India – if the Commission fails to back continuing substantial GHG cutbacks within the EU.

The EU has declared a long-term target of cutting GHG emissions by between 80 and 95% by 2050.

Upping the target on renewables is proving even more contentious. Though most countries within the EU subscribe to the idea of achieving a greater share of renewables in their energy mix, several are opposed to the setting of legally binding targets. Included in this group is the UK, which has recently announced a major expansion in nuclear energy and also plans a large-scale programme for the exploitation of shale gas.

Latest figures indicate global investments in renewables and low carbon energy fell last year for the second year in a row, with investments in Europe falling by more than 40%.

The EU’s power utilities and other large industrial enterprises have been lobbying hard against setting binding renewables targets and have called for the reduction or abolition of subsidies given to the renewables sector.

‘Uncompetitive’

They say the EU, by emphasising renewables, is jeopardizing Europe’s economic future: they say EU industries can no longer compete with those in the US, where energy costs are substantially lower due to the large-scale take-up of shale-based oil and gas in recent years.

Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the EU Commission, is reported to be among those against any insistence on establishing a legally binding target for renewables for 2030.

On the other side of the argument members of the European Parliament’s environment and energy committees earlier this month voted in favour of legally binding targets for both emissions and renewables. They also said there must be more decisive action on reducing overall energy usage within the EU and called for a binding 40% target on energy efficiency by 2030.

The new EU climate and energy package is expected to include measures aimed at reforming the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), once touted as a key element in cutting industrial GHG emissions. The ETS has underperformed due to mismanagement and an oversupply of emissions allowances or so-called “pollution credits”.

In March 2014 leaders of the EU’s 28 member states are due to meet to decide whether or not to endorse the Commission’s new proposals. – Climate News Network