Time to regain initiative on energy policy
Opinion: the European Union’s clean-energy spending fell last year while China overtook it as the largest investor
“We are not going to dig up the continent to reduce our €545 billion annual fossil-fuel import bill. Nor is nuclear going to provide a cheaper economic alternative.” The coal power plant of German utility RWE Power near the western town of Niederaussem. Photograph: Reuters/Ina Fassbender
The European 2030 Climate and Energy plan published yesterday should be a wake- up call. Anyone with an interest in climate change will know that the proposals are an inadequate response to the challenge we face. They also ignore the economic analysis that the United Nations presented last week, stating that the longer we delay the more expensive it will become to deliver the long-term 90 per cent reduction in emissions we know we have to make.
The key argument in drafting the EU plan has been on the role of renewables. The fossil fuel lobby has been stoking up fears about a United States economic edge from shale oil and gas. Consumers and industry are receptive to that message because of rising fuel bills. What is not noticed is that energy savings in industry have allowed net energy expenditure stay the same.
For all the talk about a new “golden age of gas”, it is wind and solar power that is starting to win in Europe. We are not going to dig up the continent to reduce our €545 billion annual fossil-fuel import bill. Nor is nuclear going to provide a cheaper economic alternative. If the era of large energy subsidies is going to come to an end, (and nuclear and fossil fuels are the largest recipients of such subsidies) then it will be renewables and energy efficiency that will win out.
We face a choice between a future power supply owned by a wide body of the population or one controlled by a small number of large corporations. It is because big power plants are starting to be shut down that their owners have engaged in a massive lobbying campaign to try to weaken Europe’s climate ambition.
Our institutions have lost the confidence to take any bold new steps. Six years ago the European Commission showed real leadership in steering governments to commit to a 20 per cent cut in emissions by 2020. Their bravery has paid off. We will exceed that target and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the process. If we had not lost our collective bottle we would now be setting at least a 50 per cent target for 2030. Delivering on that goal would allow us develop the technologies that the rest of the world would want to buy. Instead, clean-energy spending in Europe fell 41 per cent last year while the Chinese overtook us as the largest investor.
One of the changes we stitched into the Lisbon treaty was that every country would retain their own commissioner. But in a large team of 28 players the competition commissioner has ended up fighting with the climate commissioner, who is at odds with the energy commissioner, so in the end it is hard for them to agree on anything. It took eight countries, including Germany, France and Ireland, writing to the commission to remind everyone that committing to renewables makes economic sense. The European Parliament also stood up to the plate by not bending to the will of the fossil fuel lobby.
The commission is pushing for greater regional integration of electricity markets to help keep prices down. France and Germany are shaping up with Denmark, Holland and Belgium for just such a collaboration. The risk for us is that the UK will not come on board and we will be left in a similar isolated position, with no cheap or clean energy options.
While the 40 per cent emissions reduction target is not nearly ambitious enough, it still represents a real challenge to this country. The Government has taken its eye off this whole agenda. The climate Bill will promise everything for 2050 but they are taking the wrong decisions today. They want to double our national herd but we could hardly feed our cattle last year, as the early ravages of climate change started to affect our growing season. They want to extend the life of our peat-fired power stations. Public transport fares have risen 40 per cent. We desperately need a national debate on the climate and energy choices we face. Yesterday’s plan should prompt such an open and honest debate about what we do from here, keeping our own and the next generation’s interests in mind.
Eamon Ryan is leader of the Green Party