BRUSSELS INSIDER #1 - November 13, 2018
The EU’s next Herculean task: a collective journey to a radically new energy economy
by Clare Taylor
In the coming weeks, the European Commission will publish its long-term strategy for a low-carbon Europe by 2050. This will not be just another policy proposal: it will involve a transformation of European society at all levels. The EU is faced with another Herculean task. As Irish MEP Sean Kelly tells Energy Post, “this will be a collective effort and it does not come for free.” Quentin Genard of E3G speaks of a “collective journey” that will require “multi-level political buy-in”. Think tanks like E3G, ETIP-SNET (European Technology & Innovation Platforms-Smart Networks for Energy Transition) and the European Climate Foundation are convinced the transition is feasible. But the European public will need to give it their full support. Report by Clare Taylor.
At the request of Member States, via the European Council, the European Commission is currently preparing a new climate and energy strategy for long-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction to 2050. The strategy will be unveiled just before the next round of UN climate talks in Katowice, Poland (COP24) at the start of December.
Much has changed since the European Commission’s previous strategy ‘Roadmap to a Low Carbon Economy’ was published in 2011. In 2015, the Paris Agreement committed the world to net zero emissions in the second half of this century. More recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on 8 October warned that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
The public consultation on the new strategy suggested three different levels of greenhouse gas reductions: 80% by 2050 (the current de facto EU target), 80 to 95% by 2050 (the official ‘range’ for developed economies according to the IPCC before the Paris Agreement was struck), and net zero emissions by 2050. A leaked draft of the strategy has been roundly criticized by environmental NGOs for lacking sufficient ambition.
In an interview with Energy Post, Quentin Genard, senior policy advisor with the influential think-tank E3G says: “Net zero emissions by 2050 is the only proposal on the table that represents an evolution after the Paris Agreement, and the Commission should present different pathways to get there. The real value of such a long-term strategy is to highlight short-term decisions, notably: infrastructure decisions, priorities for research and innovation and the sustainable finance agenda.”
The new long-term strategy will describe decarbonization options for sectors including energy, transport, industry, buildings, land use (agriculture and forestry), as well as lifestyle and consumer choices. To reach the required greenhouse gas emissions cuts, “all sectors will have to be transformed,” says Genard, which in turn requires multi-level political buy-in.
“The new strategy must be ‘owned’ by different communities,” says Genard. “Even if the strategy is only a political document, it is important that the goals and pathways highlighted in the strategy are shared by the industry, Member States, Parliament, and citizens. It is a collective journey that requires a structure more complex than a classic law-and-order approach or a pure bottom-up ‘pledge and pray’.”
“The new long-term climate strategies currently under development in the EU and Member States should be seen as the beginning of a process of political and institutional change, rather than as stand-alone pieces of technical analysis,” according to Nick Mabey and Jonathan Gaventa of E3G, in an enlightening commentary on the politics of climate roadmaps. The commentary also notes that: “since the EU’s last 2050 Roadmap was published in 2011, there has been a plethora of new 2050 strategies and plans published by cities and regions, companies, industry associations and civil society, as well as Member States.”
Positive visions of change
Among the plethora of recent 2050 strategies is the vision of ETIP-SNET (European Technology & Innovation Platforms Smart Networks for Energy Transition), a Commission-appointed group whose role is to guide research, development and innovation to support Europe’s energy transition.
“We have a very positive outlook and vision for Europe’s energy system for 2050,” says Konstantin Staschus, Vice-chair of ETIP-SNET, in an interview with Energy Post. Staschus is also Chief Innovation Officer at ENTSO-E (European Network of Transmission System Operators) and a director at major consultancy Ecofys.
“We foresee an integrated, digitalized energy system based largely on renewable energy sources and with almost full circularity,” says Staschus. “For us, the most difficult technical choice is currently about seasonal storage, for example, how do we heat our homes in the windless winter months? We are still studying the quantities needed here – which will vary by region – and the best combination of biogas, power-to-gas (hydrogen and/or methane), thermal storage, and also im/exports of electricity or green LNG with other continents.”
But this is not a purely technocratic system: social innovation is also needed, especially in relation to smart grids, says Staschus. “Real choice, competing suppliers and consistent price signals will be needed if the customer is to feel truly empowered and engaged. The Clean Energy Package will help set the framework, but regulators need to keep adapting many rules to enable market participants and customers to harvest the potential benefits of digitalization. Transmissions system operators [TSOs] and distribution system operators [DSOs] need to keep improving their cooperation and data exchange.”
Staschus also highlights sector coupling as a driving force for wider public engagement. “The coupling of the electricity system with the heating and mobility sectors offers great flexibility potential. The thermal inertia of buildings and overnight charging of car batteries provide flexibility for hours at little cost and with no loss of comfort. These interfaces between different parts of our economy and our daily lives are the reason why I am optimistic about our decarbonised energy system 2050 and about the engagement and pride many citizens will take in it.”
Another recent report, Net-Zero by 2050: from whether to how, published on 27 September by the European Climate Foundation (ECF), calls for “transformational action in all parts of society”. The report’s findings are based on a simulation model developed by the engineering consultancy Climact. It follows a similar structure as the European Commission’s draft strategy, addressing transport, buildings, power, agriculture, forestry and land-use, and finance.
“What has really struck us during our research is how attainable the transition is,” says Julian Pestiaux, partner at Climact, in a press release. The report finds that commercially available solutions “can already take us about 75% of the way to net-zero if deployed at scale.” Furthermore, “there is not one way to decarbonise: each country, region, city or local authority has to define its own transition with the global objective in mind.”
Politics is the art of the possible
Whether widespread civic engagement in Europe’s climate plans will materialize remains to be seen: however, ‘green’ parties are winning popular support in recent elections in Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, and last year made major gains in the Netherlands.
Certainly, national debates are set to heat up in the coming months, as the recently agreed Governance Regulation requires each Member State to prepare a national energy and climate plan for the period 2021 to 2030. Member States are also called on to encourage their citizens to participate in the preparation of the national energy and climate plans. (Along with the CTI 2050 Roadmap Tool used for the ECF report, there are a quite a few national-level 2050 simulation tools freely available to help understand the trade-offs involved in radically reducing emissions.)
In an interview with Energy Post, Seán Kelly, member of the European Parliament for Ireland South, highlights some of the most divisive national issues in long-term climate planning: “In Ireland, we find ourselves seeking to strike the right balance between emissions reduction and supporting our agricultural sector, in Germany, this applies to industry, and in Poland, to coal. Each country has its own debate – and these are valid,” he says.
Kelly was closely involved in the recent negotiation of an EU-wide binding target of 32 percent renewable energy by 2030. Previously he was the chairman of the European Parliament’s negotiating committee for the Paris Agreement. He remains optimistic that international agreement can deliver effective climate action at a time of rising populism, “but it requires leadership,” says Kelly.
“When President Trump decided to pull out of Paris Agreement, it would have been very easy for others to follow suit due to concerns about global industrial competitiveness etc. However, the fact that this hasn’t happened shows how effective such agreements are,” he adds.
“The path towards a low carbon economy includes us all,” says Kelly. “This will be a collective effort that includes not just policy-makers and industries, but also citizens. The investment required to move to a low-carbon economy by 2050, while completely necessary, does not come for free, and ultimately it is the citizen who will pay for it.”