20 November 2009: the EU and energy efficiency

This week, I have been to Brussels for meetings on energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear and CCS. The now-ratified Lisbon Treaty says that there will, in the future, be a common energy policy, but this is unlikely to have much practical impact. Yet the EU has already set binding and enforceable targets on renewables, has significant regulatory powers which will be crucial for widespread CCS deployment.  It also has money, which will be important both for renewables and for CCS demonstration. It has little role over nuclear energy. However, it should be doing much more on energy efficiency.

On renewables, most people at the conference I attended (from the Commission, the European Parliament, national parliaments and industry) seemed quite optimistic that the 20% targets by 2020 will be met, as long as the lagging countries with great renewables potential (for which read UK, though most were too diplomatic to say so) improve performance. The Commission must help with construction of a North Sea electricity grid, which could massively increase UK renewable installed capacity and also help The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Norway (not an EU member, but serious about climate control). It must also help construct a Mediterranean grid, to harness Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) from North Africa. Some people expressed concern that this would be seen as neo-colonialism. It could be, if European countries try to harness CSP in the Sahara without giving significant benefits to the communities and countries whose deserts will be used. However, CSP will provide significant money for community funds. It also involves boiling water. If seawater is boiled and then the vapour is collected, this provides freshwater, either for drinking or for irrigation, so potentially greening parts of the desert.

The EU has also agreed a target to increase energy efficiency by 20% by 2020. However, unlike the renewables target, this is not a binding target – just aspirational.  Aspirational  targets have little impact in the real world. The Commission is now suggesting making the target binding, with predictable hostility from national governments, who argue that this should be up to them. Allowing decisions to be made by the right tier of government is important, but not as important as taking the right decisions. Therefore, the target should definitely be made binding. Energy efficiency is the quickest way to reduce emissions, and will save money and save the lives of thousands of people who die from cold every winter. A massive energy efficiency programme could also create many new jobs.

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