The Future of the European Union as a Low Carbon Zone

The European Union (EU) is made up of 27 countries and over 500 million people. Each country (more commonly called “States”) has its own sovereign identity but the governing body of the EU has rights to set limited legislation and broader policy direction for its member States. Initially set up as a trading bloc for the free movement of goods and labor, the EU is now much more.

The EU is increasingly setting far-reaching and far-sighted policy on the environment and sustainable development. Two critical documents have come out since the start of the year. A third is due, which will steer a number of critical decisions made over the next decade.

The headline policy that most people have heard of is the “20/20/20” target. Or, in longhand, the member States of the European Union have committed themselves to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 20 percent, increasing the share of renewables in the EU’s energy mix to 20 percent, and achieving the 20 percent energy efficiency target by 2020. To do this, brains behind the policy have undertaken a lot of “how to” modeling work to see how to get from here to there.

Now 2020 is deemed too close and policy is looking out to 2050. As part of this “A Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050” was published in March of this year. The focus of the document is in the title – keeping (or making, depending on your point of view) the EU greener and competitive by 2050. The document is incredibly important, as it doesn’t give clues, but full-blown statements of direction for the development and deployment of policy across the Euro zone over the next decade.

Here are the highlights and implications from the roadmap:

– Electricity will play a central role in the low carbon economy. The EU’s analysis (of which we have not seen but is reported throughout the document) implies that is it possible to totally eliminate CO2 emissions by 2050, and offers the prospect of partially replacing fossil fuels in transport and heating.

– Demonstration and early deployment of technologies, such as various forms of low carbon energy sources, carbon capture and storage, smart grids, and hybrid and electric vehicle (battery and FCV) technology are of paramount importance to ensure their cost-effective and large-scale penetration later on.

All the buzzwords are here and it is clear they don’t want to annoy any one technology or industry over another, but actual rollout is going to be a lot messier than this neat sentence.

For those interested in reading about the transport section rollout, the EU White Paper on Transport provides a “comprehensive and combined set of measures to increase the sustainability of the transport system.” It caused some strong debate when it came out.

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is thought to be critical in driving a wide range of low carbon technologies into the market.

The implication behind this is that the price of carbon will not only need to be stabilized, but also increased above its current bargain basement price.

– Investment in smart grids is a key enabler for a low carbon electricity system, notably facilitating demand-side efficiency, larger shares of renewables and distributed generation, and enabling electrification of transport. For grid investments, benefits do not always accrue to the grid operator, but to society (with co-benefits for consumers, producers, and society at large: a more reliable network, energy security, and reduced emissions). In this context, future work should consider how the policy framework can foster these investments at EU, national and local levels and incentivize demand-side management.

– The objective of the altered directive on energy performance of buildings is that new buildings built from 2021 onwards will have to be nearly zero-energy buildings.

The sad part is that if we can make buildings nearly zero-energy now with some investment and political will, why are we waiting until 2021?

– The Commission’s analysis shows that GHG emissions in the industrial sector could be reduced by 83 percent to 87 percent in 2050. The application of more advanced resources, energy efficient industrial processes and equipment, increased recycling, as well as abatement technologies for gases such as nitrous oxide and methane, could make a major contribution by allowing the energy intensive sectors to reduce emissions by half or more.

– In addition to the application of more advanced industrial processes and equipment, carbon capture and storage (CCS) would also need to be deployed on a broad scale after 2035, notably to capture industrial process emissions (e.g. in the cement and steel sector). This would entail an annual investment of more than 10 billion euros.

So between now and 2050 there is going to be a major investment in R&D for CCS and am sure some fine subsidies for its rollout.

– The European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as dedicated funding in the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework should play a role in providing additional financing for energy efficient and low carbon technologies.

That should cause a dash to these banks.

While this blog has been very cynical, the EU should be congratulated for looking out as far as 2050. We will know much more about the energy portion of this when the Energy 2050 Roadmap is published combined with the White Paper on Transport (which is already out). It should not only give me lots of write about but do what it seems impossible to do in the United States – have a coordinated policy on energy!

Article by Kerry-Ann Adamson, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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