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Europe must follow Germany and Spain

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For the next six months, Spain holds the Presidency of the EU and, from the start of February, there will be a new European Commission, with the German Gunther Oettinger, a member of Merkel’s centre-right CDU party, as Energy Commissioner. Spain and Germany lead the EU on wind and solar power, so there are good grounds to hope that the new leadership will result in a major speeding up of the low carbon transition.

Spain and Germany both have good policies on renewable electricity (see Spanish energy policies and German policy on wind and solar power). Oettinger was previously the premier of the German Land, Baden-Württemberg, which is performing well on wind, solar and hydro (including modernising and improving existing large hydro schemes). In November 2007, Baden-Württemberg introduced a Renewable Heat Law, requiring new houses to provide 20% of heat from renewable sources. The Baden-Württemberg city of Freiburg is internationally famous for its extensive use of solar energy and other renewable sources.

The EU has an ambivalent role on energy – formally, this is mainly the role of member state governments, but the original Treaty of Rome gave Brussels substantial powers over energy policy through the market-opening and market-liberalising provisions. The 1986 EU Single European Act acknowledged the economic importance of energy and energy became part of the subsequent single market programme. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty increased the EU’s role in environmental issues and gave it powers to improve cross-border energy infrastructure through trans-European networks. The Lisbon Treaty contains a specific chapter on energy, which promises the development of new and renewable forms of energy. The result is that:

Brussels has greater potential power to shape the energy market design of its member states than Washington has over US states” (from David Buchan’s, Energy and Climate Change: Europe at the crossroads, OUP 2009).

The EU has two crucial roles:

  • It has money. Oettinger and Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero should focus on providing money for North Sea and Mediterranean electricity grids:

A plan to link up energy projects around the North Sea and form Europe’s first electricity grid dedicated to renewable power is to become a political reality this month. The network, which would cost up to £26.5 billion, would be able to supply power across the continent regardless of the weather. It would be connected to Norway’s many hydroelectric power stations and could act as a 30GW battery for Europe’s clean energy, storing electricity when demand is low. A North Sea grid could link into grids proposed for a much bigger German-led plan for renewables called the Desertec Industrial Initiative [to harness solar power from the Sahara] … Norway’s hydro plants – equivalent to about 30 large coal-fired power stations – could use excess power to pump water uphill, ready to let it rush down again, generating electricity, when demand is high.

(See guardian.co: Sun, wind and wave-powered: Europe unites to build renewable energy ’supergrid’.)

The relevant national governments are already involved in the North Sea grid project. The Commission is just thinking about it, has set up a working group and promises a plan by the end of the year. This is much too slow. Oettinger should tell his officials to make a plan by the end of March.

The second priority for Oettinger and Zapatero should be to speed up demonstration of large-scale CCS. The EU has a target of 10 to 12 such plants to be operational by 2015 and has made some progress, but not enough to get any plants actually built (see http://climateanswers.info/2009/10/policy-how-the-eu-can-speed-up-ccs/). There is a crucial meeting on 2 February to get more money released – the source of the funds has been agreed but there are inevitable arguments about the process and whether the Commission or national governments should pick projects. The 2 February is only Oettinger’s second day in this role formally, but he already has influence, so must use it constructively.

The third priority for EU climate policy is to introduce a floor price in the Emission Trading System (or ETS). However, this will not be part of Oettinger’s portfolio – it will be the responsibility of Connie Hedegaard, the Commissioner for Climate Action. This is a new role and the Directorate General will only be established “by the summer”. Again this is too slow. The EU claims, with some justification, to be leading the world on climate, and now has the opportunity to restore some optimism post-Copenhagen. Hedegaard was previously the climate minister in the Danish government and chaired part of the Copenhagen conference, but she should not be blamed for the lack of much progress. Denmark has also had a good performance on climate and energy (see Denmark – climate and energy statistics). Hedegaard and Oettinger must put aside personal ambition and potential squabbles about portfolios, and governments must put aside national differences. Making progress on clean energy is more important than yet more debates about which tier of government should take which decisions.

By Stephen Tindale

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Climate change is the most serious issue ever to have faced humanity. Rightly, it is now high on the public, political, media and business agendas. However, too much of the discussion is still about what we should not be doing or what we should be against. There is not enough discussion or information on solutions - what we can and should do to minimise dangerous climate change, and what should be done to make us not only safer and more secure, but also richer and happier.


Stephen Tindale photoStephen Tindale (29 March 1963 – 1 July 2017) was a British environmentalist who was Executive Director of Greenpeace UK from 2000 to 2005. He was Director of The Alvin Weinberg Foundation, co-founder of the organisation Climate Answers, Associate Fellow at the Centre for European Reform and co-author of Repowering Communities with Prashant Vaze.