COMMENT: Christian Kjær in Brussels

When José Manuel Barroso in October closes the door for the last time as President, he takes with him a 15-year old ambition of the European Commission to have a EU renewable energy policy framework, having tabled a binding renewable energy target for 2030 in Brussels today.

This Commission’s last will on energy and climate was released today in the form of a 2030 package of climate and energy policies. It proposes a 40% reduction in domestic greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 and a target of “at least 27%" renewable energy which would be “binding on the EU” but “not be binding on the Member States individually.”

A third target for energy efficiency was dead long before the real discussions inside the Commission began and will be addressed during this summer’s planned review of the Energy Efficiency Directive.

It is evident from today’s package that the Commission wants the ETS to be the main driver for Europe’s climate and energy policy after 2020. It refers to the greenhouse gas target, as “the centre piece of the EU’s energy and climate policy for 2030”. Meanwhile, the Commission is surprisingly honest about its lack of ambition for renewable energy, and directly writes that 27% renewable energy would be reached, even without a target.

“A greenhouse gas reduction target of 40% should by itself encourage a greater share of renewable energy in the EU of at least 27%. The Commission proposes, therefore, that this should be the EU’s target for the share of renewable energy consumed in the EU”, the text reads. Had the GHG target been set at 35% instead of 40%, which was the subject of heated debates inside the Commission, the renewable energy target would have been set even lower, at 25%.

In a remarkable turnaround, president Barroso and his college of commissioners, today proposed to hand back to the 28 member states of the European Union, control over a renewable energy policy area that has been one of its biggest EU policy successes.

It is an extraordinary shift for an institution that, since the second half of the 1990s, has been consistently pushing for an ever more integrated European policy framework for renewable energy. An interesting question is whether this means that the Commission is giving up on the idea of establishing a EU-wide support-mechanism for renewables.

Even without any new targets and policies, the Commission’s own analysis shows that renewables would reach 21% in 2020 and 24% in 2030. GHG reductions would be 32% by 2030 without additional enabling policies, due to the continuation of the 1.74% linear factor per year that continues beyond 2020, in accordance with the existing Directive.

In this light, the proposed 2030 targets are very modest and compared to the ambition level of environmental groups and the European renewable energy industries, they are extremely modest.

The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), the umbrella organisation of the European renewable energy industries, has called for a 45% binding renewable energy target.

Environmental groups says that a domestic 55% carbon reduction target is needed for the to EU do its part in keeping climate change at manageable levels. On 9 January, the Parliament’s Environment and Industry Committees asked for a three-targets approach, including a greenhouse gas reduction target of “at least 40%”, “at least 30% renewable energy” and an energy efficiency target of 40%. The European Parliament is scheduled to debate the issue in a Plenary session on 4 February followed by a vote on a non-legislative resolution on the 5 February.

The Commission is proposing to hand over the initiative on energy policy to Member States while asking renewable energy project developers and investors to put their faith in the ETS and a patchwork of national renewable energy legislation.

It could be credibly argued that this is not much different from today, except for the fact that those national frameworks are driven by the national binding targets for 2020 that each country has committed to in the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.

It was only the sound of the starting gun for the political negotiations over Europe’s future energy and climate policy we heard today from the Commission. Unlike most testaments, the Commission’s will does not have to be respected by the two co-legislators of the European Union: the Council and the European Parliament.

Therefore, the idea of binding national renewable energy targets is far from dead. While it is hard to imagine the EU as whole being taken to Court for not meeting its binding renewable target, the fact that the text includes a binding EU target, leaves the door open for the Council and European Parliament to agree on an approach that could include national binding targets in some shape or form.

The Commission itself suggests that the binding EU renewable energy target “would be fulfilled through clear commitments decided by the Member States themselves which should be guided by the need to deliver collectively the EU-level target”.

That seems like an awfully optimistic “should” – at least in relation to some Member States. However, it also proposes a review and governance process for the national commitments and “if necessary, they could be complemented with further EU action and instruments to ensure delivery of the EU target.”

On June 2012, 26 of the then 27 Member States agreed with the Commission that there are three ‘no regret’ options when it comes to development of energy policy up to 2050: “a substantially higher share of renewable energy in EU gross final energy consumption beyond 2020, including in 2030”; “increased energy efficiency” and “smart and flexible infrastructure”.

Today’s package does not come anywhere near adequately reflecting those top priorities from a year ago.

The next events to follow are a European Parliament vote on 5 February, a Franco-German ministerial Summit on energy cooperation on 19 February, the meeting of EU energy ministers on 4 March and the European Council meeting of Heads of State on 8 and 9 March.

The noise, from a European Commission, internally split over renewable energy policy, that we have been hearing all over Brussels in the past weeks, ceased in an instant today. From noon today, all 28 members of the college of Commissioners will stand behind the package presented– at least until the last day of October when they all leave the Berlaymont building.

Christian Kjaer is a former chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association and is a member of the Recharge board.

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