After last-minute overnight negotiations, the European Union has announced it is increasing its renewable energy target from 27% to 32%, a move it describes as “ambitious,” but which environmental campaigners have described variously as “inadequate,” “paltry,” “far too low,” and a “spectacular failure.”
The European Union’s previous renewable energy target was set to “at least 27%” by 2030, but there has long been political ambition and outside pressure to increase this figure, and long months of negotiations finally came to a head this week. Negotiators from the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Council worked late into Wednesday night to come to a new agreement.
The new agreement was announced on Thursday and committed the EU to “a binding renewable energy target for the EU for 2030 of 32% with an upwards revision clause by 2023” and was, in part, due to the efforts of a group of countries — including Spain, Portugal, and Italy — who pushed for an even greater target of 35%. However, countries like Germany sought to implement a more “credible” and “achievable” goal and Germany, in particular, promised to block any renewables target above 32%.
“Renewables are good for Europe, and today, Europe is good at renewables,” said Miguel Arias Cañete, EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy. “This deal is a hard-won victory in our efforts to unlock the true potential of Europe’s clean energy transition. This new ambition will help us meet our Paris Agreement goals and will translate into more jobs, lower energy bills for consumers, and less energy imports. I am particularly pleased with the new European target of 32%.
“The binding nature of the target will also provide additional certainty to the investors,” Arias Cañete added. “I now call on the European Parliament and the Council to continue negotiating with the same commitment and complete the rest of the proposals of the Clean Energy for All Europeans Package. This will put us on the right path towards the Long-Term Strategy that the Commission intends to present by the end of this year.”
In addition to the increased renewable energy target, the negotiations resulted in the lifting of restrictions on the generation of electricity which will allow communities, cooperatives, and individuals to produce, consume, store, and sell their own renewable electricity without oppressive financial barriers. The agreement also phases out the use of palm oil from biofuels by 2030 and a freeze from 2020 onwards of the use of biofuels made from “food and feed crops.”
In response to the lifting of restrictions, James Watson, the CEO of Europe’s solar industry trade body, SolarPower Europe, commented: “Households wake up this morning with the knowledge that they will have a new right – the right to self-generate, consume and store the energy they produce. This is a major achievement. We are also delighted to see that administrative procedures will be streamlined so that permitting for new installations can take no more than 1 year — this will hugely reduce the soft costs of solar.”
More broadly, Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), welcomed the decision and praised the EU for their ambition: “The EU’s decision to increase its renewable energy target from 27% to 32% by 2030 is a move that consolidates Europe’s position at the forefront of the global energy transformation, and establishes a positive decarbonisation pathway in line with its commitments under the Paris Agreement.
“This ambitious and achievable new strategy will drive significant additional investment activity, creating thousands of new skilled jobs and improving health and wellbeing whilst decarbonising the European energy system. We welcome the decision and believe it can act as a source of encouragement to global policymakers, and as a clear reminder of the centrality of renewable energy to both economic prosperity and climate stability.”
The European wind energy trade body, WindEurope, similarly praised the move and echoed IRENA’s comments, explaining that the new directive “will provide rules on the design of support mechanisms aimed at providing investor certainty. Member States will be allowed to have technology-specific auctions and will have to provide at least five years visibility on public support, including the timing, volumes and budget for auctions.
“The Directive also includes an investment protection clause preventing retroactive policy changes from impacting existing renewable energy projects. Permitting procedures for new and repowered installations will be simplified with shorter deadlines for swifter build-out.”
“Paltry” and a “Spectacular Failure”
However, the general response from environmental campaigners has not been so sanguine, and have almost in one voice criticised the lack of ambition and concrete action.
Molly Walsh, a renewable energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, explained that “EU decision-makers have agreed a paltry 32% target for renewable energy that is inadequate for a climate-safe fossil-free future, and shows a failure to grasp a shifting energy landscape, including rapidly falling renewables costs.”
Imke Lübbeke, the Head of Climate and Energy at the WWF European Policy Office, said: “Going for a renewables target that is barely above business-as-usual is a spectacular failure by the EU. It will undermine jobs, the economy and the climate in one fell swoop. Renewables will continue to gain market share because they make economic sense, but the EU has missed its chance to boost them further through a strong and binding target, and reap the benefits for its citizens and industry.
Less apocalyptic but similarly disappointed, Greenpeace EU energy policy adviser Sebastian Mang explained that “the renewables target of 32% s far too low and allows power companies to cling onto fossil fuels and false solutions.”
In an effort to better understand their complaints with the target, I got in touch with all three campaigners to follow up on exactly what it was they were looking for from the European Union. Below are their responses.
“As we’ve learned from the latest leak of the UN report on climate change, only a ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transition can keep us within 1.5C of global warming,” said Friends of the Earth Europe’s Molly Walsh, referring to recent leak from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “In response to this planetary emergency, we need to be well on track to a safe and clean Europe free of fossil fuels by 2030. So the EU’s 32% target certainly looks paltry. It’s also a misreading of our a shifting energy landscape.” When I pushed her to name a target that they would have been happy with, Walsh explained that Friends of the Earth had not put “a lot of weight behind a percentage figure” but had nevertheless, as part of the Climate Action Network, “joined calls for a 45% target.”
“Our position is that we need to increase the renewable energy target to at least 45% by 2030 and transition to 100% renewables by the middle of the century,” said Sebastian Mang. “This would bring the target in line with the EU’s commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement,” he added, and pointed to Greenpeace’s energy revolution scenario as to how such a transition could take place. Mang and Walsh both also pointed to the infographic pictured right
“WWF had been calling for a target of 45%, on the basis that to meet the temperature goals in the Paris Agreement the EU needed to accelerate deployment of renewable energy (and energy efficiency) technologies significantly,” added Alex Mason. “The Commission and Council called for 27% and the Parliament 35% – the end result was a compromise between those.”
What Drove the Complacency?
I also asked each representative what they thought might have led to a middle-of-the-road renewable energy target such as was agreed upon and, as Molly Walsh put it, the “misreading of our shifting energy landscape.”
“EU decision makers have failed to grasp how quickly renewables and storage technologies are improving and falling in costs,” Walsh explained. “Big energy companies and the fossil fuel industry have continued to perpetuate myths that renewables are unpredictable, in order to maintain their monopolies over our centralised energy system. But we know that a completely renewable smart energy system is feasible now, as our Energy Atlas recently showed (PDF).”
Sebastian Mang concurred with Walsh, pointing to continuing declines in renewable energy costs making renewables “the cheapest (new) form of electricity,” adding that, “Even IRENA has shown that a 34% target for renewable energy in the EU is cost-effective,” a story I also covered back in February when IRENA published Renewable Energy Prospects for the European Union report.
“As the effects of climate change are becoming ever more visible, and to meet commitments under the Paris climate agreement, the EU needs to be more ambitious,” Mang continued. “The reason for the low ambition on renewables is not based on cost, but on political decisions. Governments and power utilities need to invest in renewables, but instead seek more subsidies for coal, gas, oil and nuclear power, such as capacity mechanisms. As the Climate and Energy Energy Commissioner said at the Energy Council on Monday. The energy transition is an opportunity, not a burden. Too many countries are still looking at it the wrong way.”
Alex Mason from the European Policy Office confirmed Sebastian Mang’s reading of the situation that it was not economics, but politics. “Opposition within the EU institutions to a higher renewable energy target came from a number of quarters, including certain Member States, certain EU Commissioners and certain political groups in the Parliament,” Mason explained, adding that, “Tackling climate change and keeping temperature rise below 1.5C is likely to save tens of trillions in the long term (for example see here) but most politicians are only looking as far as the next election, and are reluctant to take decisions that might be unpopular with incumbent industries – who of course spend millions on lobbying in support of their interests.” Further, the grounds upon which opposition was grounded was based on “a number of different arguments:”
“Some argued that achieving higher targets would require high levels of investment (in renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure such as power grids) and therefore be costly. Others argued that variable renewables such as wind and solar would pose risks to security of supply. In some cases we believe politicians were simply keen to protect companies or workers in existing energy industries – there was certainly a very well organised and funded lobbying effort throughout the process by the incumbent energy suppliers.”
The objections to these arguments, however, are easily made. “Obviously we would reject the arguments against higher ambition, pointing out that not only do we need to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement but the cost of renewables such as wind and solar has fallen dramatically in recent years, to the extent that they are in many cases the cheapest form of new generating capacity,” Mason explained.
“The problem is just that there is too much old (and fully depreciated) coal plant on the system that doesn’t pay the cost of its carbon emissions – meaning there isn’t a business case for the market to build new renewable capacity. And while it is true that moving to an efficient and 100% renewable energy system will require upfront investment – for example in grids and other infrastructure – it will also bring considerable benefits, notably in terms of air pollution, energy independence and employment: instead of spending billions on imported fossil fuels we will be spending money on domestically – and in many cases locally – produced energy.”
In the end, it is not difficult to make the case that the European Union should have, and most assuredly could have, gone further. Special interests continue to play exaggerated roles in decisionmaking, and in the long run it is not only the environment and future generations which will be paying the cost — both economically and environmentally — but there are also immediate impacts to taxpayers and energy users across society.