Austria unveils energy, environment work plan at EU helm

Austria's Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (right) at the kick-off event for the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in Schladming, 30 June 2018. [eu2018at / Flickr]

The Austrian Presidency of the EU will aim to reach agreement on two flagship pieces of legislation during its six-month stint at the EU helm – including new CO2 emissions standards for cars and vans for 2030 and a controversial reform of the electricity market.

The provisional agendas for EU Council meetings under the Austrian Presidency have now officially been published, reports OPP, a monitoring service for EU policy professionals.

Austria took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union from Bulgaria on 1 July. This means Vienna will chair all ministerial meetings at the EU level until Romania takes over on 1 January.

Among their favourites, OPP have singled out the provisional agendas for the Environment and Energy Council meetings, when EU ministers are expected to discuss – and possibly agree on – two key pieces of EU legislation.

The Environment Council on 9 October will address emission performance standards for new passenger cars and vans, on which the 28 EU ministers are expected to agree a “general approach” after a public deliberation where they will expose their views in front of the cameras.

The views of the minister representing Germany – and its powerful car industry – will come under particular scrutiny on that occasion. And so will France and Italy, the other two auto powerhouses of Europe.

Netherlands sees an opening for more ambitious car CO2 limits

The European Commission’s proposal for new car CO2 limits left many disappointed. But a spate of new governments in Europe – and shifting positions in Berlin – means those who want higher targets and an electric vehicle mandate have everything to play for.

Environment ministers will also aim to adopt Council conclusions on the preparations of the COP24 climate conference in Katowice, Poland, and on the Convention on Biological Diversity, OPP reported.

The Energy Council on 19 December promises to be newsworthy too, with a much-awaited public deliberation – and possible agreement – on new rules for the internal EU market in electricity.

While technical at first glance, the power market reform is considered a potential game-changer for the electricity sector, as the energy system prepares to take in ever-increasing amounts of renewable power coming from both large wind farms and a myriad of rooftop-mounted solar panels spread across the continent.

Austria is among the clean energy leaders in Europe. It has a target of 34% renewable energy by 2020 and aims for 100% self-sufficiency in energy by 2050.

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More controversially, the power market reform will address the so-called “capacity mechanisms”, which govern how EU nations provide state aid to the power sector. These cover things like phase-out plans for coal in countries like Poland and support to nuclear in France and Belgium.

Poles reject ‘totally unacceptable’ EU power market reform

A phase out of government subsidies for coal power, supported by the European Parliament under a proposed revision of EU electricity market rules, was rejected by the Polish power sector as a reflection of “double standards” in Europe because it leaves German coal plants largely off the hook.

Alongside the power market reform, EU ministers will debate a regulation for risk-preparedness in the electricity sector, new functioning rules for the European Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) and the European Commission’s proposed reform of the internal market in natural gas – a new set of rules designed to stop the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Sovereignty row holds back EU’s new energy regulator

The European Union inched forward on Monday (11 June) in redefining the role of ACER, the EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators. But more discussions still lie ahead, with some EU countries worried about “unlimited competences” granted to the agency.

Renewable energy associations from all over Europe called the Austrian government to foster the transition to clean energy during its EU presidency. The "Vienna Declaration“ was signed by the German Renewable Energy Association, the European Renewable Energy Federation (EREF), the Austrian Renewable Energy Association and 13 other associations at national level.

Together, they called for phasing out so-called "capacity markets" which in their view "distort power markets" by enabling national governments to subsidise back-up capacity, often in the form of coal, gas or nuclear power. "We, the signatories, strongly oppose the introduction of new capacity markets
and call on you to revise or phase-out existing ones," the declaration states.

The signatories called as well for changes to the structure of European electricity markets in a way that favour renewables over polluting forms of energy. "The current structure and operation of markets are not designed to accommodate increasing shares of renewable energy. Polluting and inflexible must-run capacity should be re-moved quickly from the market – urgently in the Member States that already have a significant overproduction of fossil fuel and nuclear power," the signatories write. "The external costs of these technologies should be internalised, and their subsidies, including those reaped through capacity markets, should be removed."

In addition, they claim renewables must be offered priority access to the grid – "until electricity markets are fully functional and until distortions caused by the overcapacity of fossil and nuclear power, that prevent the existence of a transparent pricing mechanism, are removed."

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