EU leaders fail to connect Ukraine crisis to climate and energy policy

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The Council of the European Union

Photo: Council of the European Union

Decisions on a new European climate and energy policy for 2030 are relegated to autumn as heads of state are caught up in the Ukraine crisis. At their spring summit in Brussels, EU leaders gave centre stage to energy dependence. First climate change, then competitiveness, now security of supply: the shifting priorities of member states show that a holistic vision and policy for climate and energy is there on paper but not in practice. Sonja van Renssen reports on the latest EU summit

“This is not only a summit about Ukraine,” EU council president Herman Van Rompuy told journalists at half past midnight on Thursday 20 March in Brussels. Yet what was originally intended to be a summit where EU leaders agreed the main tenets of a new EU climate and energy policy for 2030 became instead an urgent discussion on what the EU should do about Ukraine and Russia after President Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The 2030 debate became an energy security debate, yet diplomats did not look much to the former to deliver on the latter.

“It [the Crimean crisis] will catalyse a much stronger debate on energy independence, security, foreign policy and Europe’s strategic relationship with Russia,” one EU diplomat said in the run-up to the summit. He did not suggest that the European Commission’s 2030 package could be a vehicle for aspects of this debate. Van Rompuy did slightly better on Thursday night, predicting “a strong focus on reducing energy dependence” for Friday morning’s discussion on climate and energy proposals that are “also essential”.

Energy security only

But EU leaders’ conclusions focus heavily on energy dependence. They invite the Commission to propose, by June, “specific interconnection objectives” for 2030, to be agreed by October. They also call for further action on the Southern Gas Corridor and an examination of how to facilitate gas exports from the US, including through the transatlantic trade talks (TTIP). The EU gets about a third of each of its fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – from Russia today. It spent €412bn on energy imports in 2012 – more than Poland’s GDP.

Heads of state call on the Commission to present “a comprehensive plan for the reduction of EU energy dependence” by June 2014 [after an] in-depth study of EU energy security”. The plan “should reflect the fact that the EU needs to accelerate further diversification of its energy supply, increase its bargaining power and energy efficiency, continue to develop renewables and other indigenous energy sources and coordinate the development of the infrastructure to support this diversification”.

Much of this would seem to be the work of the 2030 proposals, but on these, heads of state ask for a decision by October, not before. This is despite 13 member states in a “Green Growth Group” earlier this month calling for a decision at the March summit. Reflecting the deep divisions within Europe on climate and energy policy, the summit’s conclusions do not even mention the Commission’s headline proposal for a 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction target or a 27% renewables target. On industrial policy, the conclusions invite the Commission to prepare yet another roadmap.

The 2030 connection

In contrast to policymakers, many businesses and NGOs are making explicit the connection between climate and energy, and indeed industrial policy, and Ukraine. “The tense relations with Russia – the largest importer to the EU of primary energy – should act as a catalyst for progress towards a more consistent and effective approach to Europe’s industrial renaissance and energy ambitions,” said Richard Weber, President of Eurochambres, representing chambers of commerce and industry across Europe.

A 30% renewables target for Europe for 2030 would cut Europe’s reliance on gas imports by almost three times as much as the Commission’s proposal for 27%, pointed out the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) – citing the Commission’s own figures. “The situation in Crimea is a wake-up call: Europeans rely on the most unstable and volatile parts of the world for energy security. For each new fossil fuel fired plant we build, we commit to buying the fuel abroad for years to come without security.”

“40% end-use energy savings by 2030 as requested by the European Parliament could reduce gas consumption to amounts at least equivalent to imports from Russia,” said Stefan Scheuer, Secretary General of the Coalition for Energy Savings, which includes NGOs and businesses. “The weakness of the Commission’s 2030 proposals on energy efficiency and thus on energy security has been exposed.”

“Want a competitive Europe? Embrace renewables” wrote a host of renewables groups representing technologies from wind and solar to ocean energy and biomass. “Investing in renewables for heating and cooling will bring security of supply and more competitiveness,” – as well as saving the EU €11.5bn per year – urged the biomass, geothermal and solar thermal sectors in an open letter to EU leaders. “Decarbonising our energy sector should not be regarded as a burden, but rather as an opportunity for Europe’s industrial renaissance.”

The proponents of an ambitious renewable energy and climate policy view the 2030 proposals as beneficial both for energy security and climate. Reducing emissions will after all enhance energy security if it means more efficiency and renewables. The reason why the connection is not made in the European Council’s conclusions is the intense disagreement among the member states over whether climate policy and competitiveness can go hand in hand. That disagreement has not been solved by the Ukraine crisis.

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