Europe and Central Asia
19 Nov 2015

Will the EU's Energy Union prevent a climate catastrophe?

Time is short for the Energy Union to deliver on its goals. Photo:
By Ivan Scrase

When they work, competitive markets stimulate investment where it’s needed, drive down costs and lead to innovation. They can reduce or eliminate the need for governments to take a steering role in modernisation, investment and planning for the future.

This clearly works pretty well for smart phones and bicycles, where consumers have real choice, and not too much can go wrong. But what happens when markets aren’t working, and we cannot afford to take a gamble on the future? This is where we are with energy in Europe.

We need some very specific outcomes from investments in the energy sector in the 2020s. BirdLife wants to see the EU cutting energy use while developing technologies such as renewables and electricity networks in an environmentally sensitive way, and using only sustainable amounts and types of bioenergy.

The ‘Energy Union’ initiative is the EU’s attempt to bring together key issues: climate change, energy efficiency, innovation and ‘keeping the lights on’. The fifth ‘pillar’ of the Energy Union is making the EU energy market work by increasing trade and competition and designing it to deliver on the other four goals.

Let’s hope it does. Our chances of preventing climate catastrophe, and doing so in ways that do not inadvertently wreck the natural environment in the process, depend on it. We need sufficient investment and innovation of the right kind and in the right places. Time is short, and, at the moment, the likelihood that the market will deliver – in the absence of clear commitments and politically robust plans – looks very remote.

Decisions are needed on how to design the market and what we are designing it for: on what pathway do we want to be in 2030, and at what cost to society and nature? But these decisions raise more questions about how the Union should be run:  Who should be involved in deciding on these issues? How should they decide? To whom should they be accountable? 

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On 26 November, Europe’s leaders will debate the governance of the Energy Union in the European Council. Drafts of the agreement so far promote an approach that maximises Member State flexibility, putting their control over their national energy mixes (the proportion of different energy sources used) above European interests. It minimises their binding commitments (for example, on development of renewables), as well as on planning the future of EU or even national energy systems in a meaningful way.

According to current proposals, Member States will develop national energy and climate plans for the period after 2020 that must be ‘concise’, ‘high level’ strategy documents with little or no accountability: effectively non-plans. This means we will have to put a lot of faith in the good sense of national governments and industry to do the right thing.

If we cannot commit to targets that will reassure energy investors, and do not want strong EU governance of the Energy Union, it becomes even more important to develop credible national (and EU regional) plans that help steer sufficient investment towards the right technologies and best locations to generate sustainable clean power without harming wildlife. These plans need to include detailed strategic proposals rather than a set of conflicting and vague wish lists. The key to success is to require Member States to take more responsibility for their energy mixes and how they will evolve.

Look out for the launch of Delivering Environmentally Positive Renewable Energy on 25 November, as delegates arrive to discuss these issues in the European Council. In this report to Birdlife Europe and its UK Partner the RSPB, the Institute for European Environmental Policy explains how the EU and its member states can create a post-2020 policy framework that delivers on the goals of the Energy Union and helps save nature.

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.