The Green Brief: Gassy Christmas and a chaotic New Year!

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Greetings and welcome to EURACTIV’s Green Brief. Below you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering energy & environment from across Europe. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Congratulations! You made it to the end of one of the most thrilling, exhausting, hopeful and depressing years in the history of climate policy. Just think of the blissful quiet of January 2021 before we knew the energy price chaos, Green Deal bashing and nuclear and gas infighting we’re now living …

Anyway, back to the present. We stand on the cusp of 2022, still getting our heads around two major climate legislation packages that need to be passed by the European Parliament and 27 EU countries.

2022 will be the Year of Negotiation – or the Year of Infighting.

One niche, nerdy topic that could signal how 2022’s negotiations will go is the revision of the TEN-E Regulation. Agreed earlier this month, the law decides which cross-border energy infrastructure projects are eligible for priority status.

The TEN-E negotiations were seen by some as the forerunner to the debate around the gas package. And, if the gas package takes a similar trajectory … well, buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Passing the TEN-E was painful. Fossil gas was a major source of contention, from infighting over it in the European Council to negotiations that became what one spectator called a “scrappy fight” during the fourth and final 12-hour trilogue.

“Negotiations were tough,” said Erik Bergkvist, who was rapporteur on the TEN-E proposal for the socialists and democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament. “They took a long time, even before the last negotiation,” he told EURACTIV.

Ultimately, the final agreement saw more support for fossil gas than the European Commission ever intended, with both EU countries and the European Parliament pushing for its inclusion.

Thanks in part to the European Council’s stubbornness, negotiations concluded with support for two highly controversial fossil gas pipelines with the promise these would be hydrogen ready in the future and support for blended hydrogen for most of this decade.

Et voilà, the new TEN-E was born – more climate-friendly than its predecessor, but less ambitious than the European Commission’s original proposal, something some of the parliamentary negotiators were less than happy about.

“Pragmatism won,” said Claudia Gamon, the Parliament’s negotiator for the centrist Renew Europe political group. “We will need much more if we want to be climate neutral. Pragmatism will not be enough. We have to be visionaries. We have to be bold. And we have to be strict on saying where we spend our money,” she told EURACTIV.

Now environmental campaigners and the greener groups in the European Parliament are gearing up for a battle against forces they think will water down the climate ambition of legislation proposed in 2021.

“This might be a kind of preview as to how difficult the negotiations for Fit for 55 will be. This should give the Parliament a lot to think about, to be very ambitious because we know that the Council will water everything down significantly,” said Gamon.

Meanwhile, others applauded the role of gas, given it is currently 22% of total EU energy consumption and, even in 2050, will make up about 20% albeit predominantly renewable and low carbon gas by then.

“The stance of the Council and Parliament going into the TEN-E negotiations showed good understanding of the role of gases in the energy transition and the specificities of Member States’ energy needs,” said Bronagh O’Hagan from the industry group Eurogas. “That was echoed in the Commission’s proposal for the revision of the Gas Package,” she told EURACTIV.

The conclusions were also welcomed by ENTSOG, the association representing gas transmission system operators. They told EURACTIV that the agreement introduced support for hydrogen and smart gas grids that “will support network operators in making necessary physical upgrades to integrate low carbon and especially renewable gases”.

Some Parliamentary negotiators also see the TEN-E negotiations as having a positive impact on the gas package. “Even if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, we’re saying that fossil gas is not part of the energy mix in the future,” explained Bergkvist.

The centre-right European People’s Party is also optimistic. Their TEN-E negotiator, Tom Berendsen, said that building the energy system of the future needs the right balance of affordability, sustainability and security of supply.

“We believe that balance was in the end found in the TEN-E negotiation result and we hope that this balance will be found on other files as well in the future, for example on the gas package,” he told EURACTIV.

The role of fossil gas will only grow more controversial in Europe and its defenders and opponents are only likely to dig their heels in further. So raise a glass to the new year and get some rest over Christmas. Whatever side of this battle you are on – or if you’re just in the spectator stands with us – 2022 is going to be a long year.

– Kira Taylor


This week’s top stories

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News from the capitals

HELSINKI. Finnish women could soon receive tax incentives for buying electric cars. To reach carbon neutrality by all possible means, the environment ministry is currently examining whether tax incentives could encourage women to purchase electric cars. Read more.

SOFIA. Bulgaria could face EU sanctions after electricity price moratorium. The ban imposed by the Bulgarian parliament on the rise in electricity and central heating prices could lead to European sanctions on Bulgaria. Read more.

Bulgaria-Greece gas interconnector a ‘matter of months’. It is a matter of months until the gas connection between Greece and Bulgaria is completed announced the prime ministers’ of the two countries Kiril Petkov and Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who held a meeting in the Council of Ministers on Monday. More.

HELSINKI. Europe’s biggest nuclear reactor receives permission to start tests. The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland has granted the country’s fifth nuclear reactor permission for initiating and conducting low power tests. Olkiluoto 3 (OL3) is set to start regular electricity production in June 2022 and will be the biggest in Europe. Read more.

THE HAGUE. Dutch coalition to invest €500 million in nuclear. The government of The Netherlands plans to invest €500 million to complement other energy sources, according to the coalition agreement detailing the renewed coalition government’s goals for the 2021-2025 legislative period. Read more.

VIENNA. Austrian chancellor on EU taxonomy: “we have won a battle today” According to Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer, the country’s opposition to the integration of nuclear energy in the EU’s green finance taxonomy has borne fruit, as the conclusions of the European Council summit do not make any reference to the controversial issue. Read more.

STOCKHOLM. Nuclear debate follows Swedish PM to her first EU summit. As Sweden’s new Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson attended her first European Council summit on Thursday, a debate over the inclusion of nuclear energy in the EU’s taxonomy dominated the Riksdag’s Committee on EU Affairs. Read more.

WARSAW. Against the EU ETS, Poland threatens to veto ‘Fit for 55’. Poland’s government “will take necessary legal steps” to block the elements of the Fit for 55 package “that would be incompatible with the nation’s interest and just transition,” said Climate and Environment Minister Anna Moskwa at Thursday’s press conference in Brussels. Read more.

SARAJEVO. Chinese companies to invest in BiH’s biggest wind park. The construction of the biggest wind park in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which Chinese state companies plan to invest €130 million, began on Ivovik hill near Livno, in Herzegovina, close to Croatia. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Slovak MEP leaves EPP after conservative group shuts down his green ambitions. Michal Wiezik recently left the European People’s Party (EPP) to join the Renew Europe group. In an interview for EURACTIV Slovakia, Wiezik expressed his dissatisfaction with the EPP’s position on environmental topics. Read more.

SOFIA. Bulgarian parliament bans rise in energy prices for households. Bulgaria’s Parliament imposed a moratorium on rising electricity prices for households, central heating, and water supply until the end of March 2022. The decision was backed by the newly formed ruling coalition but was proposed by former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB opposition party. Read more.

BELGRADE. Citizens place ecology fourth on the list of Serbian priorities. According to Serbian citizens, the environment is the fourth most important area of life in Serbia, with nine out of 10 respondents concerned about climate change and willing to get involved in addressing the issue, says an environmental survey presented by the Belgrade office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation on Wednesday. Read more.


News in brief

Poland calls for unanimous voting on ‘Fit for 55’ package. EU ministers should be able to vote on areas of the ‘Fit for 55’ climate package that influence “either the energy mix or the fiscal aspects, like ETS or CBAM regulations” with unanimity rather than qualified majority, said Polish environment minister Anna Mowksa.

“If you would like to have the transformation feasible and accepted by states and acceptable by states and citizens, we should work in a spirit of compromise and qualified majority voting doesn’t assure the spirit and doesn’t assure the final agreement,” she said at a meeting of environment ministers on Monday (20 December). (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Commission prepares guidance for free-flowing rivers. The Commission has developed a guidance document to help EU countries identify and prioritise barriers that could be removed to allow more of Europe’s rivers to flow free and meet the Biodiversity Strategy’s goal of restoring 25,000 km of free flowing rivers.

”Rivers in Europe are heavily fragmented. Removing barriers to restore their natural flow and connectivity will help freshwater ecosystems thrive and facilitate the migration of endangered species, such as the sturgeon and the European eel,” said environment commissioner  Virginijus Sinkevičius.

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2021: Best year ever for solar in Europe. Once again, solar power saw a record-breaking year in 2021, with an estimated 25.9 GW of new solar PV capacity connected to the grid in the European Union – an increase of 34% from the 19.3 GW installed in 2020, according to trade association SolarPower Europe. 

“This growth makes 2021 the best year in European solar history, breaking the decade-long record of 21.4 GW installed in the EU in 2011,” SolarPower Europe said. 

And the forecast for the coming years is similarly bright, the association said in its EU Market Outlook for 2021-2025. According to the most-likely scenario, European solar will reach a cumulative capacity of 327.6 GW by 2025, and up to 672 GW by 2030. “This means the EU solar fleet will double within four years, from the 164.9 GW installed today,” SolarPower Europe said. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

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The end of ivory trade in Europe? The European Commission announced a revised regulation and new guidance severely restricting trade in elephant ivory on Thursday (16 December). “These new measures are the strongest yet for the EU, which has long been considered one of the largest exporters of legal ivory in the world,” said the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

The European Union is currently among the largest exporters of legal ivory in the world. A July 2018 investigation showed that almost three-quarters of all ivory sold legally in Europe is in fact illicit and comes from the tusks of elephants that were killed after the 1990 ban on ivory trade. In May 2018, more than 90 Members of the European Parliament called for a total ban on ivory trade and imports in the EU

Today, there are just about 400,000 elephants in Africa; a 70% decline since the 1970s, primarily due to poaching. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)


Opinions


Upcoming events

3 FEBRUARY. EU methane regulation: how can policymakers raise ambition? Join James Watson of Eurogas and Dagmar Droogsma from the Environmental Defense Fund to discuss how the EU can tackle energy sector methane emissions and reach its 2030 climate targets and the 2050 climate neutrality goal. Speakers include. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Environmental Defense Fund)

9 FEBRUARY. Green steel: CBAM and ETS – do their current designs aid EU climate ambitions? Join this EURACTIV Virtual Conference to discuss the impact of the CBAM and ETS mechanisms on the steel industry. Programme and registration here. (Supported by Eurofer)


On our radar

What to look out for in 2022:

Second delegated act of EU sustainable finance taxonomy. The timing for the delegated act that will declare whether nuclear and gas are considered “sustainable” or “transitional” investments has been confusing, to say the least. But Commissioner Sinkevicius recently said that it will be approved next year, echoing similar comments from his French colleague, Thierry Breton who said the proposal will be tabled in mid-January. European Commission spokespeople, however, maintain that the proposal will be tabled before the end of the year…

From the European Commission work programme (full table here):

  • Q1: Package of proposals under the circular economy action plan, including: sustainable products initiative and a review of the packaging and packaging waste directive (PPWD). More.
  • Q4: Regulatory framework for the certification of carbon removals
  • Q4: Review of the CO2 emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles

* Editor’s note: This is the last Green Brief of 2021. We’ll be back in 2022 on Wednesday 19 January. In the meantime, news coverage will continue on EURACTIV’s Energy & Environment section, although at a slightly slower pace. Hope you have a great Christmas and see you in the new year! Until then, this is Fred and Kira signing off.

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