Energy and climate change all-important to new EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EurActiv.com PLC.

Continued reliance on fossil fuel subsidies will continue to drive clean energy investment outside of the EU. [Shutterstock]

As the debate over priorities for EU reform post-Brexit ramps up, misguided attempts to avoid political tensions are undermining popular and necessary action on energy and climate change, writes Nick Mabey.

Nick Mabey is CEO of environmental organisation E3G (ranked in EurActory’s Top 40 and Top 3 for Decarbonising the Economy).

As Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker and François Hollande meet this week, they must tackle issues that make Europe relevant internationally and that reassure citizens – the fight against climate change is one.

The political debate on what the Brexit vote means for Europe has begun to consolidate and clarify. European leaders understand that the Brexit vote was not driven by UK exceptionalism but by issues of rising inequality, distrust of political elites and fears of immigration which exist across the EU.

The EU27 discussions must now move from analysis to solutions and not risk becoming side tracked into abstract discussions about whether this means “more” or “less” Europe. It is by addressing people’s insecurities that Europe can build the political space for continued cooperation and openness.

If more Europeans do not rapidly feel more prosperous and secure by working together, then they will continue drifting towards politicians who offer the allure of “taking back control” to the national level.

European diplomacy had its biggest success in decades in delivering the Paris Climate Change Agreement. But even though the EU’s climate ambition must be increased in order to deliver on the stricter global goals agreed in Paris, the debate on revising the EU climate target for 2030 is frozen due to resistance in Poland to anything that impacts its failing coal sector.

This issue matters to Europeans. Without greater emission reductions the world will quickly breach the “safe” level of climate risk agreed in Paris. Recent polling suggests climate change is seen as a threat comparable to ISIS in Spain, Italy, France and Greece.

Traditionally “green” countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden are much less concerned. Climate change has moved from being an environmental to a security issue, but has been absent from European security debates since the Brexit vote.

The reluctance of member states to show greater ambition is not economic but political. The rapid fall in costs of renewable energy, storage and efficiency solutions has disrupted traditional markets, damaging revenues for many incumbent companies. They are now trying to preserve their value by raising barriers against new entrants; for example, through subsidies to support fossil fuel power plants.

Without stronger binding targets clean energy investors will continue to invest outside the EU27 where markets are growing. Without bold reforms, the EU will fall behind the US in building the energy markets needed to deploy new clean and smart technologies and business models which will benefit not only households but also cities, heavy industry and technology.

The smart energy revolution is analogous to the telecoms changes of the 1980s and 1990s: it required strong EU leadership to break up existing monopolies and build the infrastructure needed for competitiveness.

European leaders rightly want to prioritise policies that make Europe relevant internationally, that their citizens find popular, and that deflate populist political bubbles. New climate and energy solutions, driven by incredible advances in technology and thriving global markets, have much to offer. This requires tackling differences between member states and tackling incumbent interests, particularly to phase out coal use.

There is no painless way to re-boot the European project. The issue is to identify which areas give the best balance of political costs and benefits: energy and climate change should be nearly to top of that list.