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Elections must put Europe on a path to a green future

We are at a pivotal moment for the future of Europe. It is an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental values and visions underlying the European project, and on the future direction of this common journey. Climate change should be at the centre of this reflection.

By: Date: May 8, 2019 Topic: Energy & Climate

On May 9th, European leaders will convene in Sibiu, Romania, for an informal European Council meeting aimed at discussing a new strategic agenda for the institutional cycle (2019-2024) that will follow the European elections of the end of May. With two weeks remaining until the vote, this summit takes place at a pivotal moment for the future of Europe. It is an opportunity to reflect on the fundamental values and visions underlying the European project, and on the future direction of this common journey.

Climate change should be at the centre of this reflection. It represents the greatest threat to our world – not a theoretical but a real threat, as illustrated by the increasingly frequent extreme weather events in Europe and across the world.

The time to act is now, as the many young people who march against climate change every Friday rightly say.. The energy policy choices made in the coming years will define the structure of the energy system by 2050 – the timetable within which the challenge of climate change must be fully met, in order not to be irretrievably lost.

In recent years, Europe has been at the forefront of global action against climate change. The EU has adopted ambitious policies to reduce its CO2 emissions and support renewable energy sources, while also playing a key role in brokering the landmark Paris Agreement. The EU has also recently increased its level of ambition, by adopting a strategy that aims to make Europe the first major world economy to become carbon-neutral by 2050. The only way to achieve this is to promote a profound transformation of the European energy system, as energy is responsible for three-quarters of CO2 emissions.

The good news is that this is becoming technically and economically possible, as most of the technologies needed for this transformation are now available, at ever lower costs. What is needed is a public policy framework capable of promoting this transformation in an intelligent way – in other words, by seizing the economic and industrial opportunities of such transformation and ensuring its social inclusiveness.

There are five priorities on which a new strategic agenda should be structured to ensure the green future of Europe:

Increase the role of renewable energy sources in a sustainable way

Electricity from renewable sources will be one of the main vectors of the decarbonisation of our economy, playing a key role also in the transport and residential sectors. Wind and solar energy are now proven and cost-effective technologies.

However, the wind does not blow every hour, just as the sun does not shine every day. This variability represents a major challenge for the electricity system, as the demand for energy is independent of such fluctuations. With the growth of renewables, it will therefore be necessary to promote flexibility in the system, through investments in solutions such as electricity storage, interconnections, demand-side management systems and natural-gas infrastructure to serve as a back-up of the system. Without such investments, the systemic costs of renewable energies could skyrocket, and the resilience of the electricity system jeopardised.

Remove coal from the energy mix

Coal remains the most polluting component of the European energy system, and alone accounts for 15% of Europe’s CO2 emissions. Coal is deeply damaging not only to the climate, but also to the air we breathe every day and consequently our health. European coal-using countries should therefore be encouraged to shut down these power stations quickly – and much more quickly than, for example, Germany has planned (by 2038).

Decarbonise transport

To date, Europe has failed in its plans to reduce CO2 emissions in the transport sector, where emissions continue to increase. Transport is thus becoming a key obstacle to the EU’s decarbonisation efforts. For this reason, more aggressive policies are needed, with a particular focus on the road transport segment which accounts for more than 70% of total transport emissions. The decarbonisation of road transport would also improve air quality in our cities, which remains a key challenge for improving the health of European citizens.

Prevent the rise of new ‘Gilets Jaunes’

Climate policies can have a regressive effect, affecting the poorer segments of the population more significantly than the richer ones. This must be recognised in an honest way, in order to act and put in place the necessary compensation and social-protection mechanisms. Only in this way will it be possible to guarantee social support for the energy transformation process, avoiding any new ‘Gilets Jaunes’ movements across Europe.

Turn the energy transformation into an industrial revolution

Decarbonising the European economy also means investing in the industries of tomorrow. Europe has the potential to be a world leader in the manufacture of products such as wind turbines, electric cars and next-generation batteries. Investing in these industries could secure jobs, economic growth and thus overall long-term socio-economic sustainability.

A new strategic agenda structured on these points would find the approval of European citizens. According to the Eurobarometer, 90% of Europeans consider the environment to be a key issue for the quality of their life. More than 70% of them believe that decisions on the environment and energy policy should be taken at the European level, given their global scope.

European leaders should be able to interpret this public feeling and implement the necessary policies. At a time of deep divisions, it is more important than ever to focus on issues of cross-cutting consensus, where action at the European level has real added value compared to fragmented national policies. The construction of the Europe of tomorrow, therefore, must begin here.

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