Debate over national renewable targets divides EC and MEPs

Talking power at the podium: Gunthar Oettinger, Jose Manuel Barroso and Connie Hedegaard
Credit: EC

To target or not to target – that has been the question debated and voted on by the European Union (EU) in recent weeks over the increasingly thorny issue of climate change and renewable energy targets.

In January, the European Commission (EC) decided to drop mandatory national targets for renewable power from its plans. But on 5 February the European Parliament voted against the Commission’s proposal to drop the binding 2030 renewable targets for EU member states.

Let’s look at the events as they happened and the reaction they provoked.

On 22 January, the European Commission outlined its plans for climate and energy policy until 2030 at a press conference in Brussels fronted by President José Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Gàƒ¼nther Oettinger and Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard (pictured).

The commissioners wanted a binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels. Under their plans, renewables would need to provide 27 per cent of EU energy by 2030, but while the target would be binding at EU level, there would be no mandatory targets for Member States. But how the bloc’s nations would agree on burden-sharing was unclear, though some form of internal bargaining seemed likely.

Pragmatic or climbdown?

At a press briefing at Europe House in London, EC spokespeople fielded questions from the media who were more than animated at the U-turn on binding renewable targets.

While EC President Barroso was saying “what we are presenting today is both ambitious and affordable”, officials in London explained that the EU “could not ignore the reality of what is going on around us” as a means of explaining what some see as a climbdown and others will say is a more pragmatic approach.

Rather than thinking of achieving a non-binding renewable target in terms of individual member states, a spokesperson said they were encouraging a “more regionalised geographic approach” and wanted neighbouring countries to confer with each other, for the purposes of working out energy trading, before each member state negotiates with Brussels on what it is prepared to aspire to in terms of a renewables target.

“We have always said put the wind turbines where the wind blows. Put your investment in the most cost-efficient places in Europe. It has to be a regionalised geographic approach to renewables. It can’t be done on a national basis. For example, some countries have an excess capacity of 11 per cent, which they could easily exchange with neighbouring countries.”

Europe’s green wing responded with dismay, saying the EU was pandering to those industries which argued that tough targets were undermining European competitiveness while the US was profiting from a shale boom.

The compromise that was reached would satisfy the UK and Poland perhaps more than most, and Germany the least. The UK and Poland have argued strongly that the mandatory target approach was too restrictive and was preventing their governments from cutting emissions in the most financially efficient way.

Britain, which is expanding its nuclear power stations and looking to develop shale reserves, had fought hard for domestic leeway on renewables and had sought non-binding goals. Germany, by contrast, which is shutting down its nuclear reactors, had lobbied for binding targets.

The EC is under fire for failing to propose binding national renewables targets
Credit: RWE

“The Commission’s plan for 2030 is a sellout that would knock the wind out of a booming renewables industry,” said Mahi Sideridou, Greenpeace’s EU managing director.

RenewableUK regretted the lack of ambition showed in not proposing national binding targets on renewable energy past 2020. Its chief executive Maria McCaffery said the Commission was lacking ambition: “While it is pleasing to see the EU Commission recognise that renewable energy is a key part of future energy solutions across Europe, the lack of ambition in not ensuring there are national binding targets for renewable energy is a disappointment.

“This is a missed opportunity for member states to take collective and serious action on the drive for clean, sustainable, renewable energy, which is the best option for reducing our carbon emissions.”

But on 5 February, the Commission’s controversial proposals ran into opposition from MEPs. At a plenary meeting, the Parliament called “on the Commission and the Member States to set a binding EU 2030 target of producing at least 30 per cent of total final energy consumption from renewable energy sources”. It stressed that “such a target should be implemented by means of individual national targets taking into account the individual situation and potential of each Member State”.

While the European Parliament vote is not binding, it sends a strong signal to EU governments ahead of ministerial meetings on 3-4 March and a heads of government summit on 20–21 March, where EU 2030 climate and energy targets will be hotly debated.

The debate on targets also prompted some high-profile interventions.

Eurelectric, the trade association of the electricity sector in Europe, demanded binding emissions reduction targets and an expansion of the EU’s carbon trading scheme.

The association delivered a manifesto to Energy Commissioner Oettinger calling for EU and national policymakers to adopt an economy-wide, binding 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target of at least 40 per cent compared to 1990 levels.

They urged Oettinger and his colleagues to take measures that would “re-orient energy policy towards cost-efficiency and competitiveness”.

The group advocates extending the EU’s emissions trading scheme to other sectors after 2020, increasing investment in modernising Europe’s electricity networks, and removing regulated electricity prices that “distort” the market.

Hans ten Berge, Eurelectric secretary general, said: “Policymakers must take greater care to avoid policy-induced inefficiencies and market distortions that are unnecessarily pushing up the costs of providing electricity and raising the bills for Europe’s customers.”

“National regulatory initiatives without consideration for their impact on other member states cannot remain the rule. Only a true European approach can ensure renewed investment in the future – to the benefit of European businesses and households alike.”

And the heads of 24 non-government organisations (NGOs) entered the debate by writing a joint letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in which they urged her to take a lead in Europe over climate change and renewables targets.

The NGOs are all European – but not German – and include Oxfam, Carbon Market Watch, Climate Action Network France and the European Environmental Bureau.

In their letter they say that the Energiewende “shows the world – and in particular Germany’s European neighbours – that the energy transition is not only technically possible but also an economic and social opportunity” However, they say they are “concerned by the lack of climate leadership in Europe” and ask Merkel to “step up and create a new dynamic at European and international levels”.

In particular they want the German leader to push for at least a 55 per cent reduction in EU emissions. The letter states that the 40 per cent target “is not sufficient to get us out of the climate crisis, may put an artificial cap on the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements, and is not enough to revive the EU’s flagging carbon market”.

The NGOs also urge Merkel to “strongly support” setting binding national renewables targets. They wrote that “as Germany has already adopted domestic climate and energy targets”, it should “fill that leadership vacuum and drive the negotiating process.”

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