European energy sector 'continuous environmental threat', warns EEA

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Despite improved efficiency in electricity and heat production and a cleaner energy mix, the power sector still produces 80% of European greenhouse gases, putting significant strain on the climate, a new European Environment Agency (EEA) study shows.

"Energy from fossil fuels is the root cause of human induced climate change. The commitment of Europe to a post-carbon economy and sustainable renewable energy is essential for energy security and tacking climate change," said Jacqueline McGlade, the EEA's executive director, launching the 2008 European energy and environment report in the European Parliament in Strasbourg today (20 November).

The report argues that if Europe continues 'business as usual', energy consumption will rise by up to 26% by 2030 and Europe will remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

On a positive note, the EEA says that a change in the energy mix is taking place in Europe. Renewable energies account for the highest annual growth rate in energy consumption and coal is being replaced by gas in response to environmental constraints. In addition, the EU 27 managed to reduce energy-related CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2005 by approximately 3% despite an average GDP growth of 2.1%. At the same time, emissions increased by 20% in the US and doubled in China.

Nevertheless, the report points out that the EU is still a long way off its 2020 target of sourcing 20% of all its primary energy from renewables, with the 2005 share standing only at 8.5%. Furthermore, increased electricity consumption at least partially offsets the beneficial environmental effects of a higher share of renewables, the study shows. 

The EEA also suggests a trade-off between a reduction in CO2 emissions achieved by a switch to gas and a greater dependency on electricity imports. Europe must prepare to import an ever-greater share of fossil fuels to cover its rising energy demand, as a striking 84% of gas used in the EU could be coming from outside its borders in 2030, the report warns. In 2005, Europe imported more than 54% of its energy needs, with Russia as the largest supplier.

Meanwhile, the EU's ambitious energy and climate change package has run into difficulties, with Italy and many new Eastern member states opposing the proposed measures on the grounds that the new laws would be too costly for their industries, particularly in the context of the financial crisis.

To appease the new member states, the French EU Presidency has come up with a compromise plan for the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which would allow Poland and other new member states to grant millions of free emissions allowances to their coal-dependent power sectors (EurActiv 19/11/08).

If the EU fails to reach a deal on the climate package at its 11-12 December summit, the bloc's international credibility "will go out the window," Michael Zammit Cutajar, Malta's ambassador on climate change and former head of the UN's climate change secretariat, said in Brussels on 19 November. 

This would have severe consequences for the prospects for reaching a deal on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol during the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2009, particularly as major emitters like China and the US are looking to the EU for cues on climate action.

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