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EU energy policy: world-leading, insufficient, or both?

By Matthew Farmer 20 Apr 2021 (Last Updated April 20th, 2021 01:30)

In 2021, the European Parliament will press ahead with its European Green Deal, aiming to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. As part of this, the bloc will update its Renewable Energy Directive, aiming to generate 32% of its power renewably by 2030. But will this do enough to accelerate Europe’s energy transition?

EU energy policy: world-leading, insufficient, or both?
“Scientific evidence shows we have less than 15 years left to avoid a grim future,” said William Gillett. Credit: simonkr, Getty Images and iStockphoto

From the beginning, the proposed European Green Deal echoes the name of the now-infamous Green New Deal. This set of principles sets out a method of fully decarbonising developed economies while also reducing inequality. This far-reaching plan would involve changing the economics of energy, construction, agriculture, and taxes to incentivise decarbonisation.

Global governments have flirted with the ideas of the Green New Deal, but none have come close to putting its drastic changes into law. The EU action plan sets unusual targets across these areas, such as increasing organic agriculture or renovating buildings to decrease new construction. However, the legislation grown from the EU plan relies on softer targets, and a hope that member states will change their approach from previous years.

The proposed European Green Deal would make 27 European countries ‘climate neutral’ by 2050. Part of this would mean elimination of greenhouse gas emissions, matching existing commitments made by countries including Germany and France. The EU plan, similar to the Paris Agreement, would also set shorter-term goals to keep its energy transition on track.

How the EU’s power legislation has affected its emissions so far

According to data from EnAppSys covering 2020, Europe as a whole still generates more power from coal than solar. While most coal generation centres on a small number of countries, predominantly Poland and Germany, many countries retain some form of coal generation. In January, the EU called for a global end to “unabated” coal generation, after the fuel’s firmest defendants relented.

Although countries have rapidly expanded their wind capacity, combined onshore and offshore generation still lags behind gas power. Analysts expect gas use to increase in coming years, as it presents a relatively cheap on-demand option for countries moving away from coal.

The previous renewable energy directive mandated that EU nations generate 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2020. It also aimed for a 20% cut to emissions and a 20% improvement in energy efficiency.

In its most recent progress update looking at 2018, energy consumption levels remained higher than targeted and headed in the wrong direction. As a result of the sharp, unexpected drop in power consumption following the onset of Covid-19 in Europe, the bloc may actually achieve its goals. Economic recovery from the pandemic would wipe away this unintentional victory if, as expected, power consumption returns to previous levels.

However, the link between consumption and emissions continues to weaken. Independent climate analysis website Climate Action Tracker estimates that post-Covid total emissions from the EU could stay between 10% and 11% below pre-Covid estimates.

In the long-term, its analysis expects the pandemic to have “minimal impact” on 2030 emissions, and it assesses the EU’s current trajectory as “inadequate”. It continues: “While [a] stronger 2030 target is a step in the right direction, it is still not enough to make the EU compatible with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C goal.”

Signatories of the Paris Agreement agreed to attempt to limit global average temperature rises to “well below” 2°C more than pre-industrial temperatures. Ideally, the document says that signatories would aim for less than 1.5°C of climate change. The EU and its member states all signed this agreement.

In order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, humanity’s CO₂ emissions would need to decrease by 45% between 2010 and 2030. An updated EU target adopted in 2020 would aim for at least this, although the EU’s disproportionate emissions means it has not yet aligned itself with the Paris Agreement.

Climate academics say the targets are world-leading, but ‘nowhere near enough’

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), an independent science-based committee, criticised the EU policies as underwhelming and slow. Energy programme director William Gillett wrote: “We cannot rely on linear developments and a steady energy transition over the next 30 years to 2050. Scientific evidence shows we have less than 15 years left to avoid a grim future.

“Of course, researchers will continue to work on what can be done after 2030, but today’s EU energy legislation should have a clear focus on what must be done before 2030.”

Gillett highlighted several areas, such as systems integration and simplification of targets where the EU could improve. On the latter, the statement reads: “To reduce confusion and help to build public confidence in the use of targets and public funding for renewables, the multipliers and double counting should be replaced by ambitious, meaningful, easy-to-understand sub-sector targets where needed.”

While the complex wording of legal documents may confuse the public, European governments have started seeing legal professionals prosecute them with their own laws. In France, courts found the government liable for not meeting its greenhouse gas emission targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

In early 2020, a UK court blocked expansion of the nation’s busiest airport, Heathrow, when it decided that authorities had not fully considered the ramifications of the Paris Agreement in their plans. Higher courts overturned this ruling later the same year, but the delay to permissions set back the case for expansion, and may encourage other climate groups to look for similar uses of the law in future.

Dr Joanna Berry, associate professor at Durham University Business School in the UK and director of Durham Energy Institute, says that, despite its ambition, the legislation does ‘nowhere near enough’ to stop catastrophic climate damage.

She continues: “Europe is doing as much as, and maybe more than, any other part of the world with respect to the energy transition and climate change. However, just blanketing all of Europe with a positive message is wrong. From what we can see places like Germany, the Nordic countries and Switzerland are in a very different place when compared to, say, Poland.

“Across the continent, it’s a mixed story. Norway is doing well. The UK is also doing quite well on power generation, though it exports its carbon footprint elsewhere for embedded carbon in manufacture. Post-nuclear Germany has reverted to coal, the Netherlands is shutting down its natural gas industry.”

Is power generation really the centre of the European Green Deal?

While power generation attracts the majority of focus on climate issues, Gillett points out: “The EU Green Deal is an all-encompassing strategy, with about 50 different actions, of which revising the Renewable Energy Directive is only one.”

Both inside and outside the power industry, there seems to be an implicit assumption that it is the most important part. But as economics shift, this may not be correct.

Berry continues: “Relatively speaking, we are not too concerned about the energy generation side. Both wind and solar are now commercially viable on a very large scale. The much bigger problems are around what is happening within the end user: the demand side.

“Today, decarbonising heating, heavy industry, heavy transport, and aviation is much harder than providing more power. Across Europe as a whole, we have to get our own house in order, dragging up those slower in delivery. 

“But we aren’t sure that the European Commission has the drive or capability to force these [industries] to comply. Compliance will come from the energy transition making economic sense, and creating a low level of social disruption.”

“Climate change is not preventable – it’s already happening. But much greater efforts are needed to minimise the risk of the ever more significant impacts of climate change. The focus needs to be on those parts of the energy system that have seen little progress in the last 30 years, unlike electricity; for example, areas such as decarbonising heat and transport. 

“The average carbon intensity of grid electricity in the UK last year was around 180g CO₂-equivalent/kWh – it wasn’t long ago that the average was three times that.

“The decarbonisation of transport isn’t great anywhere, and heat is a mixed bag. Europe, or some parts of it, is seen as probably the most advanced area for energy transition. We have a feeling that Europe could be doing more around influence on the global stage. [Upcoming climate conference] COP26 should help but this will not be enough by itself, especially as it is a one-off event.”

Where has the EU done well?

On the other hand, Gillett says that the EU ‘certainly’ deserves praise in some areas. He emphasised the importance of emissions from renewable energy systems manufacturing, supply, and infrastructure, known as ‘embodied carbon’.

He says: “Embodied carbon is a very important topic, which is currently subject to international debate. The EU Emission Trading System is one of the tools used by the EU to drive its decarbonisation agenda, but it risks pushing some carbon intensive industries out of Europe, where they can produce their products more competitively by avoiding carbon pricing. 

“A new Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to tackle this problem is currently under discussion and he EU is widely recognised as a world leader in this area.

“The EU Green Deal and its legislative initiatives are pioneering the way that other countries across the world will surely follow. Without the EU, there would be no Paris Agreement and, although it will not be easy, the goal of delivering carbon neutrality by 2050 is inspiring massive changes in thinking across the world.

“The EU is doing more than almost anyone else at this very challenging time, as we work our way out of the Covid-19 pandemic. No, it is not yet enough to be sure of avoiding overshooting the 1.5°C limit for global warming that was agreed in Paris. However, this will require a global effort at all levels and in all countries, so it is great that the EU is pushing ahead and learning by doing.”