22 January 2014: Unambitious targets. Time to focus on policies

Today, the European Commission published its proposals for a 2030 climate and energy framework. The European Council – national government ministers – will discuss the proposals in March. It’s good that European institutions are at least focusing on climate policy at a time when the Eurozone crisis is not over, MEPs face elections and the commissioners are in their last year. However, too much of the discussion and campaigning has been about targets – whether there should be one or three, how ambitious they should be, and whether they should be legally binding. Well-constructed targets can play a useful role in guiding subsequent policy making.  But effective policies are more important, and could be crafted even without targets.

The 2030 framework will replace the 20-20-20 targets: that there must be a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 20% of total energy must be from renewables and there should be a 20% improvement in energy efficiency, all by 2020. For 2030, the Commission has not proposed 30-30-30. So, on the plus side, analysis has replaced the desire for a good soundbite.

On greenhouse gases, the Commission proposes a 40% reduction (from 1990 levels) by 2030. This is not particularly ambitious – not enough (even if matched globally) to restrict warming to two degrees centigrade, which most governments say is the objective. But it is at least better than the 35% which energy commissioner Günther Oettinger was arguing for. This 40% target will be divided between the member-states, in a process which used to be called ‘burden sharing’ but is now more accurately called ‘target sharing’, since greater energy efficiency and the harnessing of more renewable energy is not a burden.  And the national targets will be binding, so if a country fails to meet its target the Commission can take it to court and, if successful, impose fines.

The biggest political argument before the Commission published its proposals was about whether there should be a renewable energy target. The UK government led the opposition to this, although any target that the UK had been allocated would be lower than the ambition the London government has set itself. British politicians do not like being told what to do by ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ – even if they intend to do it anyway. So what the Commission has proposed is a messy compromise. It calls for an EU-wide target of 27% of all energy (not just electricity) to be from renewables by 2030. The Commission’s initial press release on this was withdrawn, then reissued with the words “at least” inserted before the number. This was a particularly pointless piece of brinkmanship by whoever was responsible. No one regards EU targets as a ceiling rather than a floor.

The 27% will be “binding”, but will not be divided into country targets. So its bindingness is meaningless. If it is not met, what is the Commission supposed to do. Take itself to court and, if successful, fine itself? The word ‘binding’ was probably inserted in an attempt to please NGOs, most of which set great store by having legally-binding targets.   “Legally-binding” has become a mantra for campaigners in the UN global negotiations (even though the UN has no means of enforcing anything that is agreed) and in the EU. The Commission has tools to enforce legal targets, but they are not strong enough to ensure compliance. To take one example: the UK will not meet its 2020 legally-binding renewable energy target. Nobody will go to prison. Whoever is in power will blame previous governments for the failure.

The UK government opposed a 2030 renewables target not just because we won’t reach our 2020 target, but also because giving priority to renewables over other ways to reduce greenhouse gases is not technology neutral. “Technology neutral” is the mantra of British officials and politicians. It has more meaning than the term “legally-binding” does. But it is misguided. Climate change is the most important issue facing humanity, but not the only issue that matters when deciding energy policy. Affordability and energy security matter, too. So do other types of pollution, and the problems of nuclear waste and proliferation. Taking all these issues into account, technologies are not neutral, so a technology-neutral target is insufficient.

The ‘best’ form of energy is energy which is not used, so efficiency should be top of the energy policy agenda, rather than forgotten or near the bottom, as it too often is. But a target is not essential for energy efficiency. What is necessary is a much stronger set of policies. The 2020 energy efficiency target is not legally binding. When pressed to make it binding, Commission officials argued, rightly, that legally-binding measures were more important than targets. The Commission proposed one such measure for the ‘energy efficiency directive’ – that new power stations should have combined heat and power (CHP) technology. Unfortunately this proposal was not accepted by the Council. The Commission does not propose any energy efficiency target for 2030. Instead, it promises to carry out a review of existing energy efficiency policies later this year, and then propose any necessary amendments.

The Commission should again propose that CHP be mandatory, as an amendment to the 2012 ‘energy efficiency directive’. It should also propose a strengthening of the 2002 ‘energy performance of buildings directive’. This currently requires that buildings should meet high energy efficiency standards when they are substantially renovated. It should be strengthened to require buildings to be energy efficient when they are sold or rented out, as is already the case in Sweden.

Next best, after energy efficiency, come renewables.They will never run out, produce very little pollution and are widely spread across Europe – wind in the north, wind and sun in the south. Most renewables are expensive at present, but the cost is falling fast. Europe could eventually get all of its energy from renewables: electricity, renewable gas (for heating) and biofuels (for aviation and heavy goods vehicles). Energy policy should therefore promote renewable energy above other energy sources. So a renewable energy target is desirable, in part because it gives investors greater certainty so reduces the cost of capital. But, again, a target is less important than measures. To help expand renewable energy, the Commission must give priority to the improvement and extension of electricity grids, including North Sea and Mediterranean grids. With these, Europe could easily surpass 27% energy from renewables by 2030. Time to stop arguing about numbers and to start building.


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