Europe and Central Asia
10 Feb 2016

It’s time to redesign Europe’s renewable energy policy

Renewable energy is not always environment-friendly. Photo:
By Sini Erajaa

Energy technology and demand is constantly changing as the world progresses: we are always looking for more efficient, greener ways to get the maximum output from our resources to feed our ever growing needs.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that after just five years of implementing climate and energy policies in Europe that have managed to increase the share of renewable energy use, it’s already time to discuss what the policies of the next decade should look like.

The European Commission open consultation on how to review the Renewable Energy Directive (a central piece of the EU’s renewable energy policy) after 2020 ends on February 10. The Commission is expected to propose a whole package of new renewable energy legislation by the end of the year.  

Renewable energy is a crucial part of our battle against climate change, which we absolutely need to tackle if want to protect the world’s birds, other wildlife and nature. While current EU policies have been successful in rolling out renewables, often this has happened without much of long term perspective on the environmental impacts in a wider sense, appropriate planning or safeguards.

By 2030, close to a third of Europe’s energy is supposed to come from renewable sources, making it far from a marginal issue in the energy markets. We need to start paying more attention already to how the energy transition – from traditional to renewable sources – is carried out, because renewability is not automatically a guarantee of environmental friendliness. However, the two also don’t need to be in conflict if carefully planned and managed.

Getting the policy of the next decade right is crucial. BirdLife Europe’s advice: Take full account of the lessons learned from our work with the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

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Based on a study published in November, BirdLife Europe and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK) published a set of recommendations at the end of January on how to deploy more renewable energy in a way that is in harmony with nature.

The first thing needed would be a clear regulatory framework for renewable energy that gives certainty to investors and ensures that the transition is pushed forward in all Member States. National contributions towards the EU wide target of at least 27% of renewable energy by 2030 should be legislated, and preferably translated into national targets. Measures to plan for, monitor and report on progress should also be part of legislation and not left up to the Commission’s declarations or the goodwill of countries.

Secondly, in order to minimise the need for new energy infrastructure and facilitate the transformation to a 100% renewable energy system, we need to increase energy efficiency and savings. The less energy we use, the more likely we’ll be able to meet our needs in an ecologically sustainable way.

Thirdly, one of the major stumbling blocks of renewable energy – indiscriminate bioenergy use – needs to be limited to a sustainable extent and made subject to safeguards. Some sources of the bioenergy that make up 60% of Europe’s renewable energy are linked to direct or indirect loss of habitats. What’s worse, it not all bioenergy truly reduces greenhouse gas emissions, but just shifts emissions around between sectors. A robust sustainability policy needs to be part of the renewable energy policy package.

Finally, better planning of the energy transition is crucial. Plans guiding renewable energy deployment should be more coherently aligned with biodiversity targets or the waste hierarchy (waste management processes ranked in order of most to least ‘green’).

Planning should take into consideration from the start the cumulative impact of renewable energy technologies, their land use, infrastructure and resource constraints, as well as include strategic spatial planning. Climate and energy plans should go through assessment procedures like the Strategic Environmental Assessment, which is already part of the EU’s body of environmental legislation. Better implementation of the existing environmental laws, such as the Birds and Habitat’s Directives, will also help in guiding environmentally friendly renewable energy.

For renewable energy to be truly environment-friendly, renewables need to be a success story that we can rely on. 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.