The Green Brief, powered by Goldman Sachs – How flexible is too flexible? – EURACTIV.com

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There’s a well-known f-word in Brussels – flexibility. When EU energy ministers met to discuss Europe’s renewable energy and energy efficiency plans last week, it seemed they had bet on who could say it most.

In July, the European Commission tabled revisions of the EU’s renewable energy directive and energy efficiency directive, complete with more ambition and plenty of sub-targets to drive the energy transition, including for buildings, industry, and heating and cooling.

But EU countries feel the EU executive encroaching too much on their territory with these. They argue they need “flexibility” – a byword for wiggle room.

At the meeting of energy ministers last Thursday, the word took just a matter of minutes to crop up.

Slovenian Minister of Infrastructure Jernej Vrtovec started the ball rolling: “Flexibility while delivering on ambition is key in many ways and seems to be a common thread in how member states view these proposals.”

After that, every minister mentioned the f-word, save the Irish and Italian ones – i.e. over 20 countries lashed out at the European Commission’s plan to align Europe’s energy consumption with its climate ambition.

“To be able to contribute to [Europe’s climate] target, member states need high flexibility and a low degree of details,” said Swedish minister Khashayar Farmanbar – only in the job for two days but coming in strong with the ‘get off my lawn’ narrative.

During the meeting, EU countries vilified aims to reduce energy consumption, increase the share of renewables in heating and cooling, and renovate more public buildings, saying these were not cost-effective or technically feasible.

“A one-size-fits-all approach will not be best. We should keep sufficient flexibility for member states to determine the most effective mix of national policy measures,” said Dutch minister Stef Blok on the renewable energy directive. Turning to the energy efficiency directive, he underlined “the need for flexibilities given national circumstances”.

The ministers’ statements became almost comically predictable. Watching the meeting made you wonder whether it would be worthwhile to create an “Energy Council Bingo”, with the following squares:

  • “We welcome the overall ambition”
  • “Renewable energy and energy efficiency are key” to achieving the EU’s climate goals
  • “But this isn’t feasible given our national circumstance”
  • “We need flexibility”

Estonia nailed this and indeed would have won at the Energy Council Bingo.

“Increasing the share of renewables and also more efficient consumption of energy are key components when it comes to reaching the objectives of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Estonia is in favour of the overall ambition of the directives. However, we think that it’s necessary to give the member states additional flexibility for fulfilling the main objectives,” said Minister Taavi Aas.

But, as Europe’s climate ambition increases, the pick and mix of ways to reach more renewable energy capacity and improve energy efficiency drastically decreases. At the end of the day, reaching net-zero emissions  the EU’s legally-binding objective for 2050 is going to require changes across the whole of society.

When looking at the EU’s track record in past negotiations on the energy efficiency directive, “flexibility” is often a byword for lowering ambition. Campaigners are rightly concerned that EU countries are now playing a game of limbo with the Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ package of climate laws, demanding more and more flexibility as a way to lower their ambition.

“It is extremely worrying to see that EU countries are reluctant in picking a low-hanging fruit in their efforts to tackle dangerous climate change” and reduce dependence on volatile gas imports, said Verena Bax from Climate Action Network Europe, a campaign group

Luxembourg minister Claude Turmes was the only one to come out in clear defence of the Commission’s plans. Instead of throwing around the f-word, he argued that EU ministers should be happy to receive detailed rules for energy efficiency and renewables. 

“Let’s take one concrete example of a detailed provision in the renewable directive: 50% of fossil hydrogen needs to be replaced by renewable hydrogen. Why should [the industry] change its existing fossil hydrogen with green hydrogen if it is not in this provision?” he challenged fellow ministers.

The European Commission, too, came to the defence of its proposed package of legislation. When it comes to energy efficiency, the choice of measures is and will remain in the hands of the member states, assured the EU’s energy commissioner Kadri Simson after enduring more than two hours of slurs against the executive’s work.

“I also take note of member states’ concerns and plea for sufficient flexibility in the renewable energy directive proposal,” she concluded politely.

– Kira Taylor


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LONDON. Steel industry faces EU carbon tax hit. The UK steel industry could be one of the big victims of the EU’s proposed carbon tax, according to a new report. Read more.

BRATISLAVA. Slovakia has big unused potential in geothermal energy, experts say. Solar and geothermal energy are two kinds of renewable energy with the most potential in Slovakia, according to experts, EURACTIV Slovakia reported. They added that the government should pay attention to the local environment and tailor the development accordingly. Read more.

BUCHAREST. Romania’s largest fertiliser producer halts production over gas prices. Azomures, Romania’s largest manufacturer of chemical fertilisers, said it would stop production due to the high natural gas prices. The agriculture minister pledged to look for solutions. Read more.

VIENNA. Austrian super-minister Gewessler kills €2 billion highway project. A highway project near Vienna has failed to pass the “climate check” of the climate, environment and transport ministry, the ministry’s chief, Leonore Gewessler, has announced. Her ministry had also blocked another expressway in Lower Austria. Read more.

SKOPJE. North Macedonia could extend state of energy crisis for six more months. The government will ask Sobranje, the local parliament, to extend the state of the energy crisis for six more months due to difficulties in power supply and the current situation on the energy markets. Read more.

LONDON. Farmers paid to protect soil during winter in new post-Brexit subsidy regime. Having left the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK government has set up its own farm subsidy system designed to offer “public money for public goods. Read more.

PRAGUE. Czechia could phase out coal by 2033 ‘at the latest’. The future Czech government wants to speed up the country’s energy transition and phase out coal earlier. “It would be the best success to do it (coal phase-out) by 2030, 2033 at the latest,” environment minister candidate Anna Hubáčkova (KDU-ČSL, EPP) said. Read more.

BELGRADE. Environmental protests take over 50 Serbian cities by storm. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Serbia over the weekend. They blocked main traffic arteries and bridges in over 50 cities, including Belgrade, for two hours, in protest against a mining project of the Rio Tinto company and new legislation on expropriation and referendums. Read more.


EU too must revise its climate target, activist says. As part of the Glasgow Climate Pact, all countries agreed “to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022”.

Wendel Trio, a veteran climate campaigner in Brussels, has done the maths and his conclusions make uncomfortable reading for Europe: to stay below the 1.5C warming target of the Paris Agreement, the EU must cut its emissions by at least -65% by 2030 instead of its current target of -55%.

“I calculated what the size of the budget would be under current targets and proposed policies and compared the result to the remaining global carbon budget to stay at 1.5°C as contained in the latest IPCC report. And the result is not unsurprising, but the EU would need at least double of what its per capita share of the budget would be,” Trio said. And that does not even consider Europe’s historical responsibility and capacity to act, he added. Click here to read Trio’s 3-page well-documented policy briefing. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

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Parliament’s ‘kingmaker’ group welcomes new Slovak MEP. The Renew Europe group – often hailed the ‘kingmaker’ of EU climate legislation in the European Parliament – has gained another member. Slovak MEP and environmental activist Michal Wiezik ditched the centre-right European People’s Party in favour of Renew and will be the 101st member of the group.

Wiezik switched groups, partly because he wanted to “utilise his full capacity as an expert on environmental issues and ecology”, according to a Renew Europe spokesperson. Not only will he boost their numbers in plenary, he also sits in the environment committee, where most climate legislation is debated. “I truly believe in the EU project, and I hope to contribute with my expertise to the pursuit of a prosperous, just and green European Union,” said Wiezik. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Fix the gas package, NGOs tell EU. Nineteen environmental NGOs have written to the European Commission, warning that leaked drafts of its package of gas legislation, due to be unveiled next week, are not in line with Europe’s climate goals or the global ambition to prevent drastic global warming.

“We call on you to revise some crucial elements of the package to ensure the reform of gas market rules helps the EU to be in line with its climate and energy goals. It should facilitate a fossil gas phase-out by 2035 and not drive the market uptake of so-called “low carbon” gases while pursuing a clear prioritisation of specific end uses for hydrogen produced from renewables,” wrote the NGOs, which include WWF and Greenpeace.

They also warned that the EU executive needs to consider the phase-out and decommissioning of gas grids and that blending hydrogen with natural gas, as is currently in the package, should be avoided. Read the full letter here and find the leaks on our website. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Lawmakers deeply concerned by draft methane legislation. European Parliament lawmakers have also written to the Commission ahead of the release of the gas package – this time to raise concerns about the leaked draft proposal to reduce methane emissions. Penned by Maria Spyraki and the shadow rapporteurs who drafted Parliament’s position on cutting methane emissions, the letter expresses “deep concern” about the draft.

“This is the critical decade that will determine our ability to stay within 1.5°C, and we cannot fail to deliver … The EU Methane Regulation must go beyond a few simple transparency measures on imports to secure concrete reductions of methane emissions associated with our consumption,” according to the letter, signed by Maria Spyraki (EPP), Marcos Ros Sempere (S&D), Martin Hojsik (Renew), Jutta Paulus (Greens/EFA) and Mick Wallace (GUE/NGL).

The European Parliament had called on the EU executive to set a binding target for reducing methane emissions. Still, the leaked draft fell short of this, focusing on little more than monitoring and gathering data on emissions. The lawmakers want the Commission to extend the draft rules on reporting, leak repair and bans on routine venting and flaring across the whole supply chain to cover fossil energy imports given over four-fifths of oil and gas and two-fifths of coal consumed in the EU are imported. The lawmakers added that closed and abandoned oil and gas wells also need to be capped and filled, not just monitored. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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EU bank invests record €1.1bn in Belgium’s flood-hit Wallonia region. The European Investment Bank (EIB) and the Government of Wallonia – a region in Belgium that was hit by deadly floods over the summer – have signed a record-breaking €1.1 billion contract for energy efficiency, flood resilience and rebuilding projects, the largest single operation ever financed by the EIB in Belgium.

It includes €800 million for energy efficiency renovation of social housing, part of €1.2 billion mobilised by the government for energy efficiency renovation of 25,000 public housing units in Wallonia. Alongside this, the EIB has put forward €300 million to reconstruct around 230km of damaged embankments.

“Despite the ongoing difficult circumstances, Wallonia must continue to pursue an ambitious climate transition investment policy. This takes the form of various projects under the region’s recovery plan. July’s floods reinforced this need even further,” said Minister-President of Wallonia Elio Di Rupo. More information here. (Kira Taylor | EURACTIV.com)

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Forests and bioenergy stats. Trade association Bioenergy Europe published updated statistics on 30 November, looking at the current state of biomass supply, forest and land management in Europe. 

According to the report, which is based on the latest Eurostat data, 70% of the inputs for bioenergy come from woody biomass, primarily residues and waste products such as branches and sawdust from forest-based industries. Agricultural residues from farming represent 20% of biomass feedstock, while the remaining 10% of inputs are organic waste from industry and municipal collection.

The European Commission estimates that biomass currently makes up almost 60% of renewable energy in the EU. Bioenergy consumption in Europe increased by more than 69% in 2005-2016, and this is expected to continue in the following decades, according to the EU executive.

But despite the growth in bioenergy, there has been no significant change in the shares of wood removal by end-use, the updated statistics show. According to Bioenergy Europe, this indicates that the increased bioenergy use was possible due to more efficient use of residues and growing synergies with the forest-based industry rather than intensified harvesting practices. Download a policy brief from Bioenergy Europe here. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

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French and Czech EU presidency calendars. France takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from Slovenia in January. And although the priorities of Paris for its six-month stint at the EU’s help are still unclear, the draft calendar at least is now available. And while we’re at it, we thought you might want to take a look at the draft calendar of the Czech Presidency, which will be coming next. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)

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EU’s €300bn ‘Global Green Deal’ programme launched. The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (1 December) a plan to invest €300 billion by 2027 in infrastructure, digital and climate projects worldwide to strengthen Europe’s supply chains, boost EU trade and help fight climate change. 

The scheme, called Global Gateway was framed as ‘the European Green Deal worldwide’ by the European Commission. EU money, in the form of grants, loans and guarantees, will come from EU institutions, governments, as well as EU financial institutions and national development banks.

Climate think tank E3G hailed the proposal but cautioned that delivery will now be essential to the success of the programme’s green ambitions. “Today, the EU presented the foundation for the missing global dimension of the European Green Deal. With the Global Gateway, the EU could now drive fair and inclusive clean economy benefits abroad and critically accelerate global decarbonisation,” said Léa Pilsner from E3G.

All countries that signed up to the Paris Agreement were invited to come back with new climate neutrality and 2030 climate targets by COP27 at the end of 2022. And getting the money flowing next year will be key to halving emissions this decade, the objective that must be reached to stay within the 1.5C warming limit of the Paris pact.

“We remain far from halving emissions this decade,” said E3G’s Jennifer Tollmann. “Getting money flowing into green and climate-resilient infrastructure in 2022 can bend the curve. It can give confidence to emerging economies considering greener recoveries while offering a better alternative to low-income economies looking to avoid increasingly risky fossil fuel-based development pathways. This is the EU’s chance to be the “best offer” and set the bar for high-quality cooperation”. (Frédéric Simon | EURACTIV.com)



8 DECEMBER. Energy poverty: how to reduce inequalities? Join Adela Tesarova, Head of Unit, Consumers, Local Initiatives and Just Transition, DG Energy, European Commission, Masha Smirnova, Campaign Manager European Green Deal, EUROCITIES and more  to discuss how addressing energy poverty can help reduce inequalities in the European Union and the role that Member States should play in protecting vulnerable citizens. Programme and registration here. (Supported by PKEE)

8 DECEMBER. EU taxonomy for sustainable activities – should nuclear energy be left out? Join Thomas Pellerin-Carlin from the Jacques Delors Institute and other speakers to discuss the role of nuclear power in the green transition. Programme and registration here. (Supported by REplanet)”


14 DECEMBER: Energy, climate, transport and nature protection package. Following the publication of its huge package of climate proposals in July, the European Commission is expected to table more energy-related files, including regulations on natural gas and proposals on the circular economy. It will also put forward proposals on nature protection. See the full list here:

Climate and energy:

  • Reducing methane emissions in the energy sector
  • Revision of the third energy package for gas
  • Revision of the energy performance of Buildings Directive
  • Commission communication: Restoring sustainable carbon cycles
  • Council Recommendation to address the social and labour aspects of the climate transition

Efficient and green mobility package:

  • Revision of the Regulation on the trans-European transport network
  • Revision of the Directive on Intelligent Transport Systems
  • New EU urban mobility framework
  • Rail freight corridors initiative

Nature:

  • Protecting biodiversity: nature restoration targets
  • Improving environmental protection through criminal law

16-17 DECEMBER. EUROPEAN COUNCIL. EU leaders will meet once again and energy prices are back on the agenda. This time, however, it will be after the gas package has been tabled.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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