EU energy and climate talks are the real show in Brussels

Date: 30/06/2014

Debate by heads of government on emissions, renewables, energy efficiency and energy security is more relevant to citizens’ lives than new commission president, say green groups

Drivers through the European quarter in central Brussels on Friday got a shock as giant banners were unfurled in front of the EU buildings showing political leaders speeding off the edge of a cliff.

Much as many voters might relish the idea of sending their country leaders off in such a fashion, the cartoons had a serious point – heads of government are meeting in Brussels today to thrash out the details of Europe’s future energy and climate change policies. There are widespread fears among green campaigners and some MEPs that the meeting will produce only a weak deal, if any at all.

The three banners were unfurled by 35 Greenpeace activists, braving an impending thunderstorm, who are angry that the options on the table for the leaders, including UK prime minister, David Cameron, and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, do not go far enough. An analysis by the group found that the European economy could benefit from much stronger energy and climate targets than are currently on the table.

Frederic Thoma, energy policy advisor at Greenpeace, said: “Europe is heading straight for a crash and our political leaders have taken a back seat. Big energy companies with vested interests in keeping Europe hooked to oil, gas and coal are in control. Renewables and energy efficiency can steer Europe away from danger and deliver clean energy that isn’t dependent on suppliers such as Russia.”

Under discussion are the EU’s future targets on key energy issues: chiefly, greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The leaders have agreed that these should also encompass an energy security strategy, to try to ward off the double threat they see from supplies on one hand: Europe imports nearly €500bn a year in fuel, and Vladimir Putin’s stance on Ukraine has given this concern added urgency. On the other hand is the competitive threat posed by economies enjoying a glut of cheap fuel, such as the US, where shale gas has boosted manufacturers through lower input costs.

But some aspects of the proposals are still highly contentious. The current draft energy security strategy, for instance, emphasises gas as having a central role, including exploration for shale gas within the EU. About a third of EU fossil fuel imports come from Russia, and with a continuing dominance of gas this is unlikely to change without major new pipelines – another bone of contention.

An EU-wide target of cutting carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 is likely to be supported by the leaders, though some green groups argue it does not go far enough.

The bloc-wide renewables target, of achieving 27% of energy from renewable sources by 2030, is also likely to be adopted but has been criticised, not just for being inadequate but because – unlike previous such – it is currently not being broken down into national targets.

Finally, the question of an EU target for energy efficiency has been left unresolved.

During the meeting, the leaders are thought likely to focus on energy security, in the light of the threats from Russia to turn off or turn down gas supplies through Ukraine. Putin also recently signed a $400bn deal to supply gas to China, a sign that Russia has other customer for its fossil fuels.

Shale gas should be a key consideration, according to advocates of the technology. Marcus Pepperell, of the industry group Shale Gas Europe, said: “Europe’s energy security… has become significant because of recent events in Ukraine. More government should be prepared to consider alternative new sources of indigenous energy, including shale gas, to diversify their energy mix and ensure security of supply.”

Renewable energy companies believe it is not too late for the EU to translate its bloc-wide target on renewables for 2030 into national targets. UK companies are particularly concerned that the coalition’s rejection of a national target is spooking potential investors.

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the UK’s Renewable Energy Association, said: “Renewables and energy efficiency are the best no-regrets options for both reducing exposure to international energy market shocks and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The most cost-effective way to do this that gives investors most certainty is with nationally binding 2030 targets.”

Friday’s summit may well end without a clear outcome, if leaders decide to put off a decision on the energy strategy until this autumn, perhaps even until after a new European commission is installed.

That will infuriate green activists, though it would give them more time to campaign for a strengthening of the current targets.

Greenpeace has argued that if the EU were to go further than the proposals, by aiming for a 55% cut in emissions by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and a 45% share of renewables in the energy mix, with energy efficiency savings of 40% (compared with 2005) then imports of fossil fuels could be slashed by more than half, with strong benefits to the EU’s economy.

WWF’s policy director, Tony Long, said that the summit had more relevance to citizens than the headline-grabbing debates over who should be the next commission president.

“If EU leaders are serious about ensuring the EU’s energy independence in the medium to long term, they must endorse an ambitious 2030 climate and energy package including strong energy efficiency and renewable targets,” he said. “Using more lignite and diverting clean energy investment to unconventional fossil fuels [such as shale gas] will contribute to climate insecurity and make a meaningful energy transition even harder to achieve.”

Setting a new emissions target for 2030 – the current one runs to 2020 – also has a resonance beyond Europe.

The United Nations is calling for fresh emissions targets for the years beyond 2020 to be submitted by all countries by next April, in preparation for the crucial Paris conference in late 2015, when world governments are expected to produce a new global agreement on climate change.

Europe has traditionally been at the forefront of tackling global warming and it was Europe’s insistence in 2011 on a post-2020 emissions deal that led to the 2015 conference. If Europe fails to come up to the mark, the prospects for any new deal will evaporate as quickly as the summer rain falling on Brussels today.

By Fiona Harvey, The Guardian