European energy targets disappoint environmentalists

Vincent van Zeijst Wikimedia Commons

EDINBURGH, January 25, 2014–The Scottish landscape is renowned for its spectacular scenery, but slowly over the past few years it has been changing as parts of the country have seen a swathe of large wind turbines erected across the windswept moors. Local opinion is often divided about the benefits of such turbines, but there can be little doubt about the seriousness which Scottish politicians on all sides have taken both climate change and renewable energy targets; yet that is potentially in jeopardy thanks to recent European policy changes.

Scotland has been nurturing its renewable energy sector for the past couple of decades and has now some of the most stretching targets in the world – by 2020, 100% of the nation’s energy production will be available from renewable sources. However, Scottish policy is at odds with wider UK policy, which favours a greater mix of energy production, including nuclear and creating an embryonic shale gas industry.

The UK situation reflects the energy issue across the European Union more generally – should we aspire to ever-higher levels of renewable energy production, regardless of the cost, or should we adopt lower targets and focus on lowering the cost of energy for customers?

The question posed is one which has been at the heart of the debate in the European Commission of late. At times of economic austerity, when many European countries are still struggling to rebalance their books, climate change and renewable energy targets are increasingly seen as unaffordable. Add to this the issue of untapped cheap shale gas through fracking and an ailing coal industry, and you have all the ingredients for watering down Europe’s tough environmental targets.

European targets

Europe has largely led the world on energy policy. Its stretching renewable energy targets have created a continent-wide industry. Its climate change targets and its carbon market have been closely watched. Europe’s vast market and global reach has meant its environment and energy targets have had global influence too, through supply chains as well as policies. So the announcement made on 22nd January that there would only be modest increases in emission targets and renewable energy use has been lambasted by the environmental lobby.

Under the current policies, members of the EU have to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels. Moreover, countries are expected to produce 20% of their energy mix from renewable sources and improve energy efficiency by 20%. This, say environmentalists, does not go nearly far enough. The likes of the Scottish Government, with its 100% renewables target, would heartily agree. Environmental groups want to see far more stretching targets to counter climate change, but national governments are wary of the fragility of their economies and rising fuel bills.

One of the problems is the diversity of European governments’ opinions. Germany took a clear step towards renewables in light of the Fukishima disaster and is now moving to shut down its nuclear power plants. In doing so, it is increasingly reliant on coal and renewable energy. France remains wedded to nuclear power. Poland, which has been one of Europe’s stronger economies of late, is still heavily reliant on old coal power stations and the UK wants to access shale gas, which remains controversial in many parts of Europe. Many countries are still very reliant too on Russian gas, though new pipelines through Turkey should start to reduce this dependence.

What is to be done?

So, where should Europe go from here? It certainly seems that the targets that the environmentalists aspire to are going to be unacceptable to national governments for now. What is important is that those countries which are already committed to more stretching targets, beyond the EU’s own targets, should continue to be encouraged.

Secondly, for the past decade there has been talk of creating a truly Europe-wide energy market. That still seems a long way off. At present the focus is all too often on creating new bi-lateral inter-connectors, such as the new line from Norway to the UK. What Europe really needs is its own super-grid, which would reduce the dependence of individual countries on their own domestic energy sources. A Europe-wide market would allow for Scottish or Spanish renewables to be sold more easily to a power-hungry continent.

Thirdly, Europe needs to stop talking about production and start talking about efficiency. Even now national governments are all too readily fixated on energy production rather reducing consumption. To be fair, Germany has made significant moves in this direction, but more needs to be done. Many industries are also taking measures to encourage efficiency across their supply-chains and governments should be looking at how they can support and assist these.

Fourthly, what policy makers agree upon now will have a profound impact on the energy mix and levels of emissions Europe generates for decades to come. It is vital that Europe take a long-term view. The risk is that by not taking action now; options for the future become increasingly restricted.

Finally, research and development has a lot to offer. Europe is steadily rolling out continent-wide electric charging for vehicles, but is still a long way from creating a motor industry geared towards electric cars. Countries like Denmark have been at the forefront of wind turbine design and the UK and Scotland are increasingly becoming a hub for wave and tidal device design and operation. Some of the world’s major electric wire manufacturers, such as ABB and Siemens, are based in Europe. With such vast experience and R&D facilities, Europe has an opportunity to become a world-leader in environmental and energy technologies.

Europe’s leaders have set themselves easier targets for the coming decades on energy and climate change gas emissions. Yet it need not be a completely lost opportunity if these targets are taken as a baseline and a range of additional pan-European measures can be taken. Europe still has the capacity to lead the world on climate change.

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