EU ditches binding renewable target in face of economic realities

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The European renewable energy sector has expressed disappointment at the decision by the European Commission to drop mandatory targets for renewable power from its plans.

The European Commission outlined its plans for climate and energy policy until 2030 at a press conference in Brussels yesterday fronted by President José Manuel Barroso, Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger and Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard.

The Commissioners want a binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 40 per cent from 1990 levels. Renewables will need to provide 27 per cent of EU energy by 2030, but while the target will be binding at EU level there will be no mandatory targets for member states, as persistent economic crisis continues to take its toll.

The 27 per cent figure is set to be an overarching target for the EU as a whole. How the bloc’s nations would agree on burden-sharing remains unclear, though some form of internal bargaining seems likely.

At a press briefing at Europe House in Westminster, London, European Commission spokespersons fielded questions from the media who were more than animated at the U-turn on binding renewable targets.

While Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was saying," what we are presenting today is both ambitious and affordable", officials in London explained that the EU “could not ignore the reality of what is going on around us” as a means of explaining what some see as a climb-down and others will say is a more pragmatic approach.

Rather than thinking of achieving a non-binding renewable target in terms of individual member states, a spokesperson said they are encouraging a ‘more regionalised geographic approach’ and want neighbouring countries to confer with each other, for the purposes of working out energy trading, before each member state negotiates with Brussels on what it is prepared to aspire to in terms of a renewable target.

“We have always said put the wind turbines where the wind blows. Put your investment in the most cost efficient places in Europe. It has to be a regionalised geographic approach to renewables. It can’t be done on a national basis. For example some countries have an excess capacity of 11 per cent, which they could easily exchange with neighbouring countries.”

Europe’s green wing has responded with dismay, saying the EU is pandering to those industries that argued tough targets were undermining European competitiveness while the US was profiting from a shale boom.

A compromise has been reached will satisfy the UK and Poland perhaps more than most, and Germany the least. The UK and Poland, have argued strongly that the mandatory target approach was too restrictive, and was preventing them cutting emissions in the most financially efficient way.

Britain, which is expanding its nuclear power stations and looking to develop shale reserves, had fought hard for domestic leeway on renewables and had sought non-binding goals. Germany, by contrast, which is shutting down its nuclear reactors, had lobbied for binding targets.

“The commission’s plan for 2030 is a sellout that would knock the wind out of a booming renewables industry,” said Mahi Sideridou, Greenpeace’s EU managing director.

RenewableUK regretted the lack of ambition showed in not proposing national binding targets on renewable energy past 2020.

RenewableUK Chief Executive Maria McCaffery said the Commission was lacking ambition: “While it is pleasing to see the EU Commission recognise that renewable energy is a key part of future energy solutions across Europe, the lack of ambition in not ensuring there are national binding targets for renewable energy is a disappointment. This is a missed opportunity for member states to take collective and serious action on the drive for clean, sustainable, renewable energy, which is the best option for reducing our carbon emissions.”

The commission has also decided not to legislate on the development of shale, leaving the exploitation of unconventional reserves to each country’s discretion.

At the London press call, the commission’s spokesperson was keen to reinforce the point that member states needed to see the plan in a holistic way, which could be facilitated by talking and strategizing with surrounding neighbours.

“Europe has very little indigenous fossil fuel resources” she said. We have the choice to continue to buy in imported energy in a slavish way. We can generate domestically produced energy – shale gas might compensate for declining resources form North Sea oil and gas.”

“Yes - wind and solar are highly capital intensive and it is of course a new technology and is of course expensive. But from the bill we are paying today our children will benefit. Renewables can’t win through in one day but it can be done progressively as we are doing, by going from 20 to 27 per cent in this phase. Europe can maybe never be fully energy independent, but at least it will increasingly become more autonomous.”

When asked what would stop member states from coming up well short of targets if there was no legal imperative, the spokesperson said, “Member states don’t tend to make promises that they then break.”

This was greeted with much guffawing by the press pack and it is likely that the commission has much to do to persuade that the great European renewable energy project remains intact.

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