The EU gained a good reaction from its request for comments to the March 2006 green paper on how Europe should deal with the energy markets, the environment and rising European demand.
Nearly 1,700 responses came in, with more than 1,300 coming from individual members of the public. 18 member states (and Romania) responded, as did the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.
The commission also invited the Spring European Council and the European Parliament to react to the paper and is hoping for further public debate. Concrete proposals will be tabled by the end of 2007 to address the long-term challenge of developing a Europe-wide energy policy.
To date, responses to the paper have been generally favourable. There was broad agreement that 'business as usual' is no longer an option and the respondents also largely accepted the internal market. The commission would do well to listen to the criticisms that have been expressed, though.
FIXING A MESS?
Respondents have, for example, pointed to some hypocrisy in the commission's position. Fossil fuels gain huge subsidies – estimated at more than €25bn a year in the EU alone. Reinvesting even a fraction of this would help cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30% by 2020.
The commission was also criticised for avoiding the current mess in the energy market where the great majority of consumers gain less from the supposed liberalisation of gas and electricity markets than do the energy companies and their shareholders.
There were many calls for the new policy to be better centred on individual citizens rather than companies. Energy poverty was seen as a major unaddressed issue, even more damaging with the coming higher energy prices. There was also a broad call for a more effective form of emissions trading than the existing scheme, with higher carbon prices. The general preference was for a strategic energy benchmark based on lowering CO2 emissions.
There were also calls to incorporate energy policy objectives into all areas of the EU's external relations, including economic and trade policy. Among the three objectives, that of sustainability was seen as much more important than security of supply and competitiveness. There have been calls for real action on energy efficiency and renewable sources rather than just the faith that 'opening the market to competition' will miraculously provide a cure.
THE WAY FORWARD
It will be interesting to see how much the commission listens to the feedback it so publicly sought, and in particular how it intends to make real improvements in the continent's energy efficiency. That has to be the most important and most effective policy instrument to achieve energy policy goals, and there is widespread disappointment that more is not being done. The EU has also done little to encourage small and renewable energy providers.
Respondents identified solar energy as the most interesting technology for EU collaboration, followed by wind, second-generation biofuels, tidal / wave energy, hydrogen, fuel cells and smart grids. Support for carbon capture and sequestration was high among the coal industry and conventional power suppliers but contributors from other sectors drew attention to its risks.
And, whatever is decided, EU policy must also be translated into action in the individual countries. The UK is a fine example. While preaching energy efficiency and berating individuals for not doing more, the UK government provides grants for microgeneration that are frankly miserly. When the grants did finally become available they were greatly oversubscribed – crashing the website that was supposed to help allocate them.
Such mismanagement in the face of such a strong public desire to reduce their own environmental effects has led some of the small companies to believe that it is actually an attempt to destroy them to leave the market open for the bigger players.