The EU needs a ‘Green New Deal’

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

In more than half of EU countries, the rate of adoption of renewables is slowing down. [Shutterstock]

Europe needs its own ‘Green New Deal’ to stave off the perfect storm of populism, climate change and economic crisis. Instead, the EU has adopted confused energy and environment policies which could be self-defeating in the long run, writes Vincente Lopez.

Dr Vicente Lopez-Ibor Mayor is the co-founder of Lightsource, Europe’s largest solar energy company, and chairman of the Lightsource BP Foundation. He is a former Commissioner of Spain’s National Energy Commission and an Alumni of Harvard Business School’s Executive Leadership Programme.

While new figures seem to show that the EU is on track to meet its target of transitioning to 32% use of renewable energy by 2030, a deeper look shows that we could be going in the opposite direction. The good news is that eleven countries in the bloc have surpassed their clean energy targets, reaching 17.5% of the EU’s total energy consumption.

But according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in a recent shock report, overall the world has made “almost no progress” on making energy systems more sustainable. And in the EU, over half of the countries are lagging behind as the rate of adoption of renewables is slowing down.

Although the share of renewables in the EU increased by an average of 5.5% per year between 2005 and 2015, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA) the rate of growth decreased by 0.2% in 2016 and by 0.3 percentage points in 2017.

This could cause not just some member states, but possibly the whole EU, to miss its 2030 target – striking a blow against nascent solar and renewable industries.

EU slows down in race for renewables, energy efficiency

Progress on renewables and energy efficiency is slowing across the EU, mostly due to rising energy consumption in transport, according to latest data from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

This slow-down poses a threat on multiple fronts. We face rising costs from energy imports and the prospect of ever-increasing dependence on Russian gas.

This endangers the climate and puts EU economies at risk from regional instability, geopolitical games and economic shocks.

The risk is one that the EU cannot afford. An underlying productivity crisis has fuelled poverty and stagnating wages. As we head to the EU elections in May, populist political parties are exploiting nationalist sentiments and fake news to promote short-sighted policies that could kill the renewables industry.

Yet the EU’s response to this perfect storm of crises has been simply to muddle along. No wonder the EEA has called on the EU for greater investment in more ambitious infrastructure projects.

To date, the EU has not risen to the challenge. Its energy and environmental priorities are in particular disarray.

For instance, while attempting to wean off coal, EU ‘biomass’ policies have increased dependence on unsustainable wood burning practices with devastating import for climate change.

Similarly, the EU’s new directive banning palm oil for biofuels from Malaysia and Indonesia is supposed to stave off deforestation. But some scientists warn that a complete ban – as opposed to better regulation – would actually increase deforestation in the Amazon as ongoing demand will instead require accelerated rapeseed and soybean production, which uses four to ten times more oil per unit of land.

Biofuels: Commission blacklists palm oil, throws soybeans lifeline

In an eagerly-awaited decision, the European Commission last week categorised palm oil as a high-emitting biofuel crop but provided some controversial exemptions for smallholders and spared soybeans from the delegated act’s provisions.

These are symptoms of short-sighted approaches that fail to see the bigger picture.

At a time when the EU project itself is in question from all quarters, a ‘Green New Deal’ for the continent, similar to that proposed in the US by Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, could provide a comprehensive solution.

Numerous studies show that in Europe, an ambitious transition to 100% renewables based on interconnected transnational smart grids is perfectly viable and cost competitive with fossil fuels. Such a crash programme would revitalise Europe’s infrastructure, creating new jobs and industries in clean energy.

But this is not just about ‘energy’. A truly successful renewable energy transition must include an integrated package of cutting edge technological innovations: digitalisation, Big Data, AI and smart grids, combined through the emerging ‘Internet of Things’ to help create a truly decentralised clean electricity ecosystem.

With the right economic structures, such an investment could restore public confidence in the EU. By investing in a comprehensive infrastructural revival, the EU can lay the foundations for lasting prosperity.

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