The EU’s Energy Action Plan

A Warm Winter has Spurred the Push for Consensus

Lavdim Ismaili | February 2007

As Europe experiences one of the warmest winters in hundreds of years, and the reliance on unpredictable foreign energy supply is making European policymakers increasingly uneasy, the issue of future energy policy has taken center stage. On Jan. 10, 2007, the EU Commission launched its Strategic Energy Review, embarking on what it called a "new industrial revolution," with a package of proposals on European energy policy.

The Commission’s proposals include a 20% share increase of renewables in the energy sector by 2020, with 10% biofuels in the transport fuels mix, and cut of 30% in primary energy consumption. The review also acknowledged CO2 emissions as a pressing issue, urging a low CO2 fossil fuel future, with the nuclear option left to be decided by individual member states.

The development of a common external energy policy is on the agenda too, as well as the development of a European Strategic Energy Technology Plan to focus research and development efforts on low carbon technologies.

"Climate change is one of the gravest threats to our planet," said Stavros Dimas, EU Commissioner for the Environment, calling the goals "a set of ambitious, but realistic targets" in EU efforts to contain climate change, and urging "the rest of the developed world to follow our lead."

Then on Feb. 2, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a panel established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), published a seminal report on global warming that emphasized the role of humans in inducing climate change, which may lend more urgency to the consideration of environmentally responsive solutions in the energy sector, both in the EU and globally.

"It’s useful, at the very least, that a UN science panel is publishing a very authoritative report on the science of climate change," said Mark Johnston, Greenpeace EU Energy Policy Campaigner, in an interview for The Vienna Review. "The jigsaw, as it were, begins to fit together in a better way as the political process moves on … strengthening the hand of the Commission in the upcoming ministerial meetings [in February and March]."

In November of last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned of an alarming future if current energy trends remain unchanged, including a 55% increase in energy demand by 2030, skyrocketing oil prices, and severe supply disruptions, as well as a two-fold increase in CO2 emissions and severe environmental risks.

Council discussions on energy, competitiveness, and the environment later this month will be followed by consideration in the EU Parliament, review by the Council of Foreign Ministers and possible adoption at an EU summit in March. The result – an action plan for a common European energy policy.

There is, however, a policy rift within the EU, said Johnston, especially between Germany, the UK and other countries that recognize the urgency of climate change and more "regressive" governments, such as Poland.

"Over the next few weeks a certain amount of arm twisting is going to happen so that [these governements] are pressured to sign on to a common agenda at the March summit," Johnston said. "How successful that process will be, remains to be seen."

While the Commission does not have the final word, the next steps are going to be based on the proposals that it set out in its Strategic Energy Review -- a report that has received mixed reactions from various industries and environmental NGOs. Greenpeace, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), WWF, and Friends of the Earth, Europe, focused their criticism on the climate change preservation goals that the proposals entailed, expressing discontent with its inconsistent attention to environmental concerns. Still the proposed package may, they admit, be better than nothing at all.

"Its EU greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020 is unacceptably weak," said John Hontelez, Secretary General of EEB, "and its energy policy proposals unconvincing and potentially even damaging, particularly regarding biofuels and nuclear power."  Friends of the Earth Europe called it "good news for the dirty energy industry, bad news for people and the planet." Greenpeace energy experts called the proposals "all packaging and little substance."

The Union of Industrial and Employers’ Confederations of Europe, Eurochambers – the Association of European Chambers of Commerce and Industry – and the European Chemicals Industry criticized the unilateral CO2 reduction target, citing competitiveness concerns, although they praised the Commission’s comprehensive approach. Environmental NGOs have repeatedly pointed to renewable energy sources, like solar and wind generated power, as the technologies for a sustainable future.

"Renewable energies have the potential to deliver nearly 70% of global electricity supply and 65% of global heat supply by 2050," said a Jan. 25 report by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), "Energy [R]evolution: A sustainable World Energy Outlook."

A public opinion poll last year by Eurobarometer, covering the EU 25 as well as acceding and candidate states, showed that 48% of Europeans supported solar and 31% backed wind power development, while only 12% favored the further development and use of nuclear energy.

If successful, the landmark Action Plan for a Common European Energy Policy to be adopted in March could begin to realize these hopes, influencing future development of sustainable energy resources in Europe and potentially, limiting the human impact on climate change.

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