Renewable energy: A simple strategy to regain global leadership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Wind turbines peer over mountains of coal in an Amsterdam depot. [Marcel Oosterwijk/Flickr]

The EU is no longer leading the global energy transition. To reclaim this position, it must stop prioritising fossil fuels and nuclear, increase energy efficiency and keep fossil fuels in the ground, argues Christine Lins.

Christine Lins is Executive Secretary of REN21, the global renewable energy policy network.

In 2007 Europe was at the forefront of the renewable energy transition. That year, it adopted a binding commitment to get 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020 – an ambitious increase of 11.5% in just 13 years. This commitment was part of a broader climate and energy package which positioned Europe as a global leader in the field.

But by 2015, according to a new report released by REN21, Europe had lost its edge. It had fallen behind China and the US in the renewable energy race. Europe’s investment in renewables fell by 21% last year, while the US’ grew by 19% and China’s by 17%.

On the one hand, this is partly as a result of Europe’s early and sustained success. Having achieved a relatively high penetration of renewables, Europe has for some time been facing challenges which the current front runners are only starting to confront, most importantly the integration of variable sources into a grid whose baseload is occupied by fossil fuel and nuclear generation.

But those challenges are surmountable. The bigger problem is that Europe’s ambition as a whole has been watered down, held hostage by coal-addicted countries such as Poland. Whereas Europe’s 20% by 2020 target was revolutionary, its more recent 27% by 2030 target is lacklustre by comparison – a paltry additional 7% over a ten-year period. It’s the lack of political will in Europe which is bringing about its own downfall.

Some of this boils down to a reduction in financial support for renewables that began during the financial crisis. But consider the double standard at work here: subsidies for fossil fuels are seen as necessary to bolster the economy, while subsidies for renewables are considered a luxury we can’t afford. Bizarrely, fossil fuel subsidies in EU member states are increasing despite public EU pledges to reduce them. It is no wonder that the European Commission has quietly dropped its demand to end the subsidies. The fact that in 2015 we continue to subsidise fossil fuels at a level four times that of renewables is simply astounding.

Fortunately, pockets of European leadership continue to thrive. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has compared his country’s energy transition – the so-called Energiewende – to America’s ambition in the 1960s to put a man on the moon in less than a decade.

If Europe wants to reclaim its leadership position (and it should), it must do three things:

  • Stop prioritising fossil fuels and nuclear: Europe can be proud that in 2015, more than 77% of new EU generating capacity came from renewables, and for the first time renewables made up the lion’s share of Europe’s total electricity generation. But until it creates a level playing field – by stopping financial subsidies for dirty energy and giving renewables priority access to the grid – progress will stagnate.
  • In early 2016, the Commission launched a strategy to reduce emissions from heating and cooling – the first of its kind anywhere in the world – by increasing efficiency and the use of renewables. This is a first step in paying attention to the sleeping giant which is crucial for any successful energy transition. There need to be ambitious policy frameworks for heating and cooling established at the national level. To date, policy frameworks have been marginal.
  • Keep fossil fuels in the ground: European governments continue to promote exploration for new sources of fossil fuels, even though only a fraction of existing reserves can be exploited if our climate ambitions are to be met. In March, for example, the UK announced a major package of support to encourage £4 billion of additional investment in the North Sea which will prolong the life of this vital [oil and gas] industry. It’s time to face the music – fossil fuels have had their day, but that day is over now.

When President Kennedy announced America’s ambitions in space, he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.” Substitute the clean energy race for the race to space, and that speech could have been made in 2016. The question is whether European governments are up to the challenge.

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