Battle of narratives erupts over 2020 energy savings progress

The European Commission traded fire with energy savings campaigners yesterday (28 May) over the EU's chances of meeting its goal of cutting power use 20% by 2020, as both sides read different runes from energy projections submitted by member states last month.

Energy efficiency is considered as the most cost-effective way of cutting CO2 emissions and by the decade’s end, the EU has an aspirational pledge to reduce energy use by 20% of what a Primes model projected it would be, in 2005.

But the bloc is only on track for a 17% cut, despite a slew of measures, including an Energy Efficiency Directive, an Energy Performance in Buildings Directive, ecodesign and labeling requirements and fuel efficiency standards.

According to Philip Lowe, the director-general of the European Commission’s energy directorate, the latest data received from 12 member states representing 68% of the bloc’s economy had left him “relatively positively surprised.”

If the other 15 countries plans were equally ambitious, the 17% figure would have to be revised upwards, he told EURACTIV.

“We haven’t got all plans in yet but if you extrapolate what those dozen member states have promised to do, then it comes nearer to the target of 20% than the 17% we originally predicted,” he said.

But Stefan Scheuer, a spokesman for the Coalition for Energy Savings, which released its own figures yesterday, said that the action plans “show that member states are not on a voluntary basis capable of setting targets that they can meet.”

With few exceptions, the coalition found that EU states were “proving reluctant to step up their national ambitions” beyond the minimum the EU required, and that the bloc’s 2020 target was due to fall short by 62 million tones of oil equivalent, near the annual energy consumption of the Netherlands. 

Much will hinge on the as-yet unknown plans of the remaining EU states. “It may be we haven’t got the ‘ugly’ ones yet,” Lowe said.

The good, the bad and the ugly

The Coalition figures were toted according to the EU states’ action plans, and intelligence from national contacts naming 18 countries which it termed “the good, the bad and the ugly” for their energy use.

The five ‘ugly’ countries were Estonia, Finland, Malta, Romania and Portugal, none of which contributes a sizable amount to the EU’s GDP.

Estonia, currently in first place to win the race to meet the EU’s renewable energy target, is also last among EU countries for energy savings, with consumption for 2020 projected at 30% above target levels, an increase in energy inefficiency. 

Large ‘bad’ economies such as France, Germany, the UK and, to some extent, Spain, “set minimal targets that are likely to be achieved anyway,” the Coalition found.

Surprisingly, the continent’s top energy saving powerhouses included some countries experiencing economic troubles – Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Slovakia.

Public debt rules

Even so, calls made at the informal energy council in Dublin in April for a reconsideration of the EU’s public debt rules for energy efficiency investments found a significant echo from within the European Commission.

“We would be sympathetic to it,” Lowe said.  “The commission is committed to seeing how this problem can be addressed and we will do anything we can do to facilitate energy efficiency investments.”

Intelligence gathered by the Coalition for Energy Savings suggests that, even with financial constraints, member states were taking their energy savings directive “quite seriously,” according to Jan te Bos, the director-general of Eurima, the European insulation manufacturers association. “But not in sense that this is an opportunity.”

Their engagement was driven by a fear of binding targets and “a false perception that this was a cost for public budgets,” he said.

Binding targets

Lowe said it was “undoubtedly true” that energy efficiency was the best way of meeting what he called the “energy challenge”, and said that the Commission had “never hidden its view” that it should be at the top of the agenda. 

“A binding target at national level would obviously give the best signal for investments but it must be backed up by binding measures,” he expanded, citing the Energy Efficiency Directive as an example. 

Member states resisted ambitious targets for the renovation of public buildings that the EU proposed in that directive, Lowe said, “so it would be wrong to believe that the problem is simply solved by a binding target”.

One legacy of the directive’s protracted and often fractious negotiations was a ‘loophole’ insisted on by the UK – and some other states – allowing the counting of ‘early actions’ – taken up to four years before the directive’s time horizon – in yearly 1.5% energy savings obligations.

Return of the ‘accounting trick’

This provision, thrashed out in the final negotiating session in Strasbourg outraged Germany, Finland and Austria, who denounced it as an absurd and unjustified “accounting trick” that would drain the directive of meaning.

An interpretation note drawn up by the Commission’s legal services department, which EURACTIV has seen, appears to rule the ‘early actions’ proposal out of bounds.

But the UK still views the ‘early actions’ proposal as a necessary last piece in the jigsaw, allowing it to sign up to the Energy Efficiency Directive.

Without the British vote, there might have been no EU majority for the directive as some countries, including Finland, reportedly opposed it over concerns that it could undermine their ‘first mover advantage’ in energy efficiency.   

As such, officials fear that reopening the directive’s file now could be divisive. No Brussels movement on the issue is expected for some weeks.


Europe aims to reduce its primary energy use by 20% by 2020, a target which is not legally binding. But so far, EU states are only on track for savings of around 9%, according to Commission estimates.

To achieve the EU's stated goal, an Energy Efficiency Directive was proposed by the European Commission in mid-2011 and finally approved after much haggling in June 2012.

Several sectors were covered in the directive, but its cornerstone was an obligation on energy companies to reduce their energy deliveries to customers by 1.5% each year.


  • By end of 2013: Communication on 2030 targets expected.
  • 2014: Energy Efficiency Directive due to come into effect.
  • April 2014: First National Energy Efficiency Action Plans (NEEAPs) to be submitted to the Commission by member states.
  • May 2014: EU member states must prepare schemes for their energy companies to deliver annual energy savings of 1.5%.
  • 30 June 2014: Review of progress towards meeting the 2020 energy efficiency target.
  • 2016: European Commission to review the Energy Efficiency Directive.
  • 2020: Deadline for EU's aspirational target of cutting energy use by 20% of 2005 levels, according to a baseline projection

Further Reading

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