A meeting of EU energy and environment ministers this week in the Swedish town of Are is discussing energy efficiency. It is certainly good news that politicians are focussing on this. Using energy wastefully makes no climate or economic sense, but many politicians regard the subject as too ‘unsexy’ to be worth much attention. A report by the respected Stockholm Environment Institute (see A European Eco-efficient Economy), published as background for the meeting, argues correctly that the EU must make greater efforts to promote innovation and energy efficiency.
Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency for the rest of this year, is good on most climate issues. However, it isn’t good on energy efficiency and uses almost as much energy per unit of GDP as the US does. Italy uses only 57% of the US figure, the UK 62%, Spain 64.5%, Germany 75% and France 78%. So, for once, the Swedish energy and environment ministers will have things to learn from their European counterparts.
The Stockholm Institute report argues for a “package of solutions” that combine taxes, standards-setting and other forms of policy intervention. This is clearly sensible, but difficult to achieve at a pan-European level. This is because any agreement on taxation still requires unanimity in the EU Council of Ministers, so any member state, however small, can block it. Jacques Delors spent his entire eight years as Commission President pushing for an EU Carbon/Energy Tax, but without significant success. The EU is better placed to set efficiency standards, and the Commission has proposed higher standards for office equipment (this in alliance with the US Environmental Protection Agency), lighting and TVs. These should certainly be implemented.
Something which isn’t on the Are meeting agenda, but should be, is the best use of biofuels. An excellent report published today by the UK think tank Policy Exchange, Green Skies Thinking, argues that biofuels should not be used for surface transport, which should be powered by electricity, but for aviation. The report argues that future biofuels, which are less damaging to the climate than oil is, can be grown on marginal land which is not suitable for growing food – so preventing the indirect effects of forcing deforestation to provide land to grow enough food (see Agriculture and forests). This is sensible and the EU must abolish its “package” promoting biofuels for surface transport, which include obligations on fuel suppliers to include a certain percentage of biofuel and massive public subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy.