A United Nations body has found that the European Union has failed in its commitments towards transparency and public participation in renewable energy policies - a move which has been hailed as a victory by wind farm opposition groups.
The Compliance Committee for the Aarhus Convention, an international agreement on environment policy transparency, claimed the EU - which is a signatory - has failed to put in place a proper regulatory framework and clear instructions on how to consult local populations in their renewable energy plans.
In the firing line are the national renewable energy action plans (NREAP) that all 27 EU countries have submitted under the 2009 renewable energy directive.
It also reported that the EU had failed to properly monitor the implementation of such an energy action plan in Ireland, and ensuring there was sufficient public participation in drawing up the plan.
The compliance committee - which is not a judicial body, so cannot sanction signatory countries - offered recommendations for the EU’s future compliance.
The advisory panel urged the EU to adopt a “proper regulatory framework and/or clear instructions” for implementing NREAPs, in order to “ensure that the arrangements for public participation in a member state are transparent and fair and that within those arrangements the necessary information is provided to the public.”
It also called for the EU allow for “sufficient time for informing the public and for the public to prepare and participate effectively, allowing for early public participation when all options are open, and ensuring that due account is taken of the outcome of the public participation,” adding that it should “adapt the manner in which it evaluates NREAPs, accordingly.”
Fanning opposition flames
Opposition groups have hailed the Compliance Committee findings as a victory against the EU’s plans to construct more wind farms, which they view as an eye-sore and ineffective in reducing CO2 emissions.
The European Platform Against Windfarms (EPAW) and the World Council for Nature (WCFN) released a joint statement on 26 August claiming a victory over an EU policy that was “riding roughshod over both the health of its [the EU’s] citizens and the protection of natural reserves”.
The author of the initial complaint, Pat Swords, an Irish chemical engineer, called on the member states’ renewables plans to be “suspended”, saying the plans had been "imposed from the top down without properly informing and consulting the people."
Swords also said that there was not enough evidence proving the effectiveness of wind farms in reducing CO2 emissions, claiming that “a number of studies by independent engineers have shown that they may be saving none.”
Julian Scola, communication director for the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), told EurActiv that they were looking into the complaint, saying it appears to be a matter “about Ireland which EPAW claims has a wider significance.”
Scola said EWEA was also seeking “clarification from UNECE [UN economic commission for Europe] and from the Irish government.”
A difference of opinion
When the case was first brought to its attention in 2009, the European Commission made clear it did not share Swords’ opinion.
“It is clear from Mr Swords’ communication to the Committee that he does not like renewable energy and wind energy in particular. He is entitled to his opinion but the European Union for one does not share it,” the Commission said in a statement, adding that “the expansion of renewable energy is of critical importance to the preservation of our environment for future generations.”
The slap on the wrist by the UN panel is expected to raise eyebrows at the Commission, which also has to juggle the expectations of its public, the vast majority of which is in favour of swift action on renewable energy.
In a reply to the Aarhus Compliance Committee draft findings, the European Commission had said it “came as a surprise when the Committee transforms this obligation [to make provisions for public consultation] into an obligation to have a ‘legislative’ framework”, since the provision does not mention legislative action.
The EU executive also said that requiring the EU to make any changes to its legislation would “go beyond the text of the convention” but that it was looking into ways it could improve public participation in environment plans and policies.
Commission spokesman for environment and climate change, Cezary Lewanowicz, told EurActiv that most of the EU executive's comments were taken into account and accepted by the UN panel for its final findings.
As such the final document only appeals for "clear instructions" for public participation as opposed to statutory changes.
Lewanowicz said the Commission intends to issue such clear instructions to member states when they update their NREAPs.
One environmental campaigner in Brussels, who preferred not to be named, said EPAW / WCFN were "all too clearly trying to make a mountain out of a molehill."
Blow to anti-wind farm groups
Meanwhile in Britain, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a think-tank, has chipped into the mounting evidence for the efficiency of wind farms as an energy source.
The report, published 30 August, concludes “unequivocally that wind power can significantly reduce carbon emissions, is reliable, poses no threat to energy security”.
IPPR went on to say that turbines were “technically capable of providing a significant proportion of the UK’s electricity supply with minimal impact on the existing operation of the grid.”
Claude Turmes, vice-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance, said his European Parliament group "explicitly asked the government to involve stakeholders." Turmes said the only area which could be improved in the formulation of NREAPs was how "often and extensively" the country involved stakeholders, but he said he could not comment on the specific situation in Ireland.
Turmes added that the EPAW/ WCFN statement was a "lobby exercise" that "really overstretched" what was written in the original UN document, and was "twisting information". He said it was "dishonest to suggest the UNECE would make such a statement."