Polluting coal and energy-hungry steel were the central elements of the European project when it was forged some 60 years ago. By 2050, the European Union hopes, its fossil-fuel past will have been left behind for good. And the decisions on how to attain Europe’s low-carbon energy future are going to be taken in the coming months and years. Europe’s energy needs are at a turning point.
European policymakers have spelt out their vision many times. Future energy supply is to be greener, less vulnerable to non-EU states turning off the taps, and delivered by more competitive markets. This trio of energy goals – environment, security, competition – were set out in a white paper as long ago as 1995, but progress has been patchy.
Europe’s greenhouse-gas emissions may have fallen since 1990, but the world is still dangerously close to the tipping point of dangerous climate change. Millions of Europeans were left in the cold during the winter of 2009, underlining that dependence on Russian gas is still a painful reality for some European countries. And open markets are being created far more slowly than the liberalisation of telecoms and transport.
Now there is new impetus behind all three goals. EU leaders have promised to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 20% by 2020 and by at least 80% by the middle of the century, necessitating a radical change in how Europe generates energy.
In his bid for a second term as European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso promised that decarbonising Europe’s energy supply would be one of the priorities of the 2010-14 Commission. The first fruits of that promise will be shown next month: on 10 November, the Commission will publish its energy strategy for 2020, to be followed by more detailed papers, including on energy infrastructure (on 17 November). Next year, a detailed roadmap on switching to a low-carbon power sector will be published.
EU leaders are scheduled to have their first-ever summit devoted to energy in February, an idea put forward by Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council. For the Commission, this is “a brilliant opportunity… to put forward a vision”, as one senior official put it earlier this year. The Commission wants EU leaders to promote serious spending on updating Europe’s ageing energy network and on building new renewable power sources.
According to Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, the ‘Europeanisation’ of energy policy has begun, but has not gone far enough. An unpublished draft of his energy strategy obtained by European Voice last month is even blunter: the internal market is “too fragmented”, implementation of internal- market legislation is “disappointing”, and despite its vulnerability to gas crises, Europe is divided and punches below its weight on world energy markets. Meanwhile, the lead that European companies held in renewable power is being challenged by China and the United States.
Oettinger’s energy strategy paper sets out five priorities. First, speeding up work on energy efficiency to get the EU on track to make energy savings of 20% by 2020, a target pledged in 2006 but way off-track because efforts so far have been desultory. A long-delayed energy-efficiency action plan will be published in early 2011. The second priority is to stimulate investment in a low-carbon economy – no small task at a time of sluggish growth, when even Germany is experiencing only a modest recovery.
Third, Oettinger wants greater efforts to preserve Europe’s fragile lead in renewable technologies and to speed up development of new technologies such as marine energy and offshore wind. Fourth is the creation of an open, competitive energy market. This long-standing priority comes with new emphasis on consumers; the Commission proposes publishing regular reports on consumer protection.
The fifth goal is to find the EU’s common voice on energy. In practice, this means more assistance to help its neighbours Ukraine and Turkey implement EU rules on energy and to modernise their infrastructure, as well as continuing the EU’s efforts to diversify energy sources.
Time is short. As the draft paper notes, most of the relevant proposals will be issued in the next 18 months. But the EU will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for decades to come. Given the long life of energy infrastructure, the pipelines and power stations that are built in the next ten years could be decisive in determining whether Europe’s long-term energy goals are realised.