Europe to hit decarbonation target but has its energy rules changed much in Member States

Ten years after implementing EU rules to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent, improve energy efficiency equally so and consume renewable energy by that same number, the European Commission will now look at the results from Member States (MS) implementing its 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The RED was supposed to establish “a common framework” to promote and use renewable energy. Crucially, the results will show whether the EU now has its fingers on the elusive solution: how best to coordinate and harmonize MS energy policies towards the EU’s climate goals. Michael Davies-Venn reports


The 62-page rule sums up to a simple objective. The Commission set each MS a legally binding and “achievable” target on “gross final consumption” of renewable energy. That means energy used for electricity, transport and heating and cooling. There is clear logic to setting the targets. The Commission considered several factors, including member states’ GDP, their potential to generate renewable energy and their initial “energy mix”. It sweetened the deal by setting rules for joint renewable energy projects and allowing MS who produce more renewable energy than they need to transfer to those who didn’t and this counts towards the latter’s target. And then the Commission started, since 2009, praising the praiseworthy, issuing fines, suing, and nagging the laggards.

The praises and nags come with a refrain, “while the EU as a whole is on course to meet its 2020 targets, some Member States will need to make additional efforts…” It’s foolhardy to argue the EU will not meets its overall target. Yet silly to say such reflects success in harmonizing MS energy policies. In fact, as the latest data from 2018 shows, the EU could well reach its target without contributions from quite a number of MS. Sweden, Latvia, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Czechia, Cyprus, have already reached their targets. Estonia was the first to do so in 2011, a year later, Sweden, with the highest 49 percent target joined that company of early achievers, with Latvia joining in last year, after completing the second highest target of 40 percent. At 10 percent Malta had the lowest target, next to Luxembourg with 11. Targets for Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Hungary, The Netherlands, Slovakia, Germany, Ireland, Slovakia, U.K and Poland are in the teens, which most are yet to reach, along with those having greater targets.

These results are cause to ponder. Why is Greece – long burden with a dire financial crisis since the year before the directive – among that pack of achievers while Poland – with a lower target than Greece and a higher GDP than Greece since 1996 until now – is still about 4 percent from target? Why is Luxembourg – with a GDP that more than doubled that of Estonia in 2009 and 2019 and with the second lowest target – trailing Estonia? No clear answer is possible. But indications are that decarbonization has more to do with political courage and leadership than money, societal consciousness of an eminent environmental crisis than a history of producing renewable energy and, willingness for transformative reforms than political posturing.

 Renewables are cheaper than energy from fossil fuels, yet wealthy Luxembourg continues to consume  oil. The country will likely reach its target, but decarbonizing Europe requires more than doing the expected. There must be willingness to change. Ten years from implementing the RED has not caused significant changes in the energy mix of several other MS. Poland’s GDP was the EU’s 6th largest in 2019, yet the Poles consume coal and oil in notable quantities. While the U.K appears to follow the letter of the law and may reach its target, it has done so without imbibing the spirit of decarbonizing its economy. Oil consumption consistently increased the last three years in a country that is said to have “some of the best wind resources in Europe, if not the world.” This suggests the RED did not significantly influence UK’s energy preferences and policies. Similarly, in France, a clear path to making substantial contributions to consuming renewables is not present. President Emmanuel Macron’s siding with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s contributed to a final agreement on net reduction of “at least 55 percent” in emission by 2030, but France is far from reaching its current 16 percent. With more than 6 percent off target, it seems that Mr. Macron has had more success with political posturing than decarbonizing the French economy. As is with the UK and oil consumption, so does nuclear energy continues to increase and dominates the French’s energy mix.

With just 2 percent left, the EU is certain it meet its overall RED target after tallying data collected until the end of 2020. It is laudable compared to nothing. But the stubborn presence of fossil fuels within the EU, after implementing this far more demanding RED, compared to the more flexible, non-legally binding and target-free RED II being implemented, strongly indicates that decarbonizing European economies is slow and uneven. And worse yet, the EU net-zero dream may become a reality because of climate actions by a few willing MS. Uneven contributions towards that goal would be unfair and is not the sort of progress the EU envisages. Such will undermine a key EU principle of solidarity. We look to Luxembourg and Estonia, Poland and Greece, among others, to conclude, transformation necessary for decarbonizing European economies is not wholly dependent on wealth or the Dane’s “Vindeby,” These windfarms, said to the first in the world, may have laid solid foundations for the stellar performance of the Danes in the RED, but this history is not a panacea for their future climate actions. Money is necessary but political courage, leadership premised on environmental commitment, willingness for transformative reforms and societal consciousness are crucial. And the EU will be onto something on its unstated aim to harmonize MS energy policies by confronting head-on, how to effectively and efficiently influence all MS to fairly contribute towards the EU Green Deal. A candid answer may well mean treaty negotiations that will bring more clarity to competency between EU and MS on energy and climate.

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Michael Davies-Venn

Michael Davies-Venn researches global environmental governance. A policy analyst, he puts emphasis on climate mitigation and climate adaptation measures within the Paris Agreement. A communication professional, his political commentaries address climate change topics, including European decarbonisation, Paris Agreement implementation between developed and developing countries and human rights. He has studied and worked worldwide and is presently a Guest Researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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