EXCLUSIVE / By 2030, Europe could be generating more than 40% of its energy from renewables, using 38% less energy than in 2005 and emitting 50% less greenhouse gases than it did in 1990, a new WWF report shows.
“Achieving such levels would put the EU on track to deliver a 100% renewably powered energy system by 2050 at the latest,” says the report, Re-energising Europe, prepared for WWF by the Ecofys consultancy.
The European Commission will soon begin an orientation debate about 2030 climate targets, in advance of a public consultation (Green Paper) later this spring and a follow-up policy paper (Communication) due by the end of the year.
But Jason Anderson, WWF’s head of EU climate and energy policy, said that such measures were unlikely to be successful in the absence of legal recourse.
“Time and again, indicative targets and voluntary agreements have failed and been replaced by binding targets,” he told EURACTIV.
“The energy-savings target is non-binding and on course to be missed,” he added, “so let's start from the realisation that within the arsenal of policy measures the EU has, binding targets are useful.”
Applied globally, a ‘sustainable energy for all’ policy could also generate enormous cost savings by mid-century, Anderson said. “Achieving full access to energy worldwide using only renewable energy by 2050 would save $4 trillion by cutting fossil and nuclear energy costs.”
The modelling in the new report is extrapolated from a 2011 global study which found that limiting energy use in absolute terms was a crucial first step towards decarbonisation, followed by a scaling up of renewable generation technologies.
In the new paper, European energy savings are broken down by sector, with industry consuming 31% less energy, buildings making a 26% saving, and transport energy consumption falling by 11%, all by 2030.
The methods involved in the reductions would differ by sector. Transport emissions would be cut by fuel economy measures, improved air traffic management, and greater vehicle electrification and use of hybrids.
In industry, a 60-70% reduction in the intensity levels on 2000 levels would be achieved through increased recycling, stringent and ongoing ‘best available technology’ guidelines, and ambitious plant refurbishments.
By contrast, with buildings, a 2.5% annual retrofit is proposed, along with increased heat recovery, insulation and ventilation systems, heat pumps, solar thermal systems and local renewable solutions where possible.
Anderson said that countries such as Poland were making efforts on energy efficiency and it was thus “a bit perverse” that they were unenthusiastic about reducing CO2 emissions and improvements in the Emissions Trading System.
“With more ambition on greenhouse gas cuts for 2020 and beyond, supported by targets including a binding efficiency target, not only would countries like Poland see the benefit of reduced inefficiency, they could attract investment and use income for further measures,” he said.
'100% Renewable energy by 2050'
By 2030, the Ecofys report also projects that 65% of Europe’s electricity, 35% of its heat and 29% of its fuels could be powered by renewables. In total, this would power 41% of Europe’s energy needs.
“These results represent a scenario result in which the final goal is 100% renewable energy by 2050,” says the report, which breaks down renewable energies into the same sectors as those for energy savings.
An apparently incongruous finding that electricity grids will not be able to accept an annual renewable electricity share above 45% – but still make up 65% of total electricity – is explained by a massive expansion of hydro-powered geothermal energy, concentrated solar power and bioenergy, according to the report's authors.
But the Ecofys scenario is careful to ascribe stringent sustainability criteria to bioenergy, which the EU currently counted as carbon neutral, despite increasing evidence that this may not be the case. Any expansion in its use could require a much larger biomass industry.
The model also assumes a phase-out of nuclear energy by 2040-2050, and no substantial deployment of carbon capture technologies by 2030.
Gas: An 'essential' balancer
Industry sceptics contend that increased renewable power generation risks power outages, without sufficient storage or backup for times when the sun is not shining, nor the wind blowing.
Anderson told EURACTIV that gas “will be essential for balancing variable supply for the coming decades, certainly, but with reduced operating hours.”
But as a high-carbon energy source with a finite use, the utmost caution would be needed when using its unconventional gases, such as shale, he added.
“The problem with including shale gas is that this simply unlocks another huge pool of carbon we can't possibly expect to burn and stay within safe limits to global warming,” he explained.
“As the IEA has said, most carbon is unburnable. So which bits get used and which don't?”