Europe’s Clean Energy Ambitions: Revolution or Evolution?

Lucas Minich
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

Over the last several years, the European Union has emerged as a worldwide leader in renewable energy generation. This is not by accident. Rather, it is the result of concerted effort on the part of the Union and its Member States. Because climate change is an inherently international problem, in which the negative effects of one nation’s activities are shared by the world, meaningful progress (“meaningful progress” being the progress necessary to avoid catastrophe) requires international solutions that are both aggressive and enforceable. This is not a radical proposition. Over thirty years ago, the world responded to the serious threat of ozone depletion by signing the Montreal Protocol; all 197 United Nations member states either accepted or ratified the agreement.[1] Today, the harmful gases depleting atmospheric ozone have all but been phased out and the ozone layer is expected to return to 1980 levels by 2060.[2]

The push toward clean energy in Europe roots back to 1990, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first summary report that sounded the global alarm on the catastrophic effects of climate change on the planet.[3] The European Council responded modestly, agreeing to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.[4] The global climate summit at Kyoto in 1997 extracted further —albeit voluntary— commitment from the EU Community to reduce 1990 GHG levels by 8% before 2012.[5] These fledgling promises, while laudable and moderately successful at accomplishing their goals (at least in Europe), suffered from a lack of specificity on the methods of implementation, a low level of international buy-in, and enforcement mechanisms that provided very little incentive for countries to fulfill what they promised. [6]

It was not until 2007 that Europe’s leaders agreed upon a substantive plan to address climate change. Known as 20-20-20 by 2020, the plan sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase renewable energy production and energy efficiency by 20% compared to 1990 levels by 2020.[7] To accomplish these goals, the plan instituted an emissions trading system, set national electricity use targets, and proposed a carbon capture and storage framework.[8] Many policies enacted under this plan were binding at the national level[9] and thus were more easily enforced than legislation binding on the Union as a whole. Europe is currently on track to meet their 2020 goals.[10]

Yet many in Europe felt that there was more to be done. Average energy prices in Europe in 2012 were among the highest in the world; a disconnected energy grid often put strain on the available supply of power, forcing countries to import energy to meet consumer demand.[11] Europe’s earlier prioritization of renewable energies also contributed to supply instability. Traditional sources of power generation are inherently stable: coal and gas power plants can quickly be turned on and their energy output easily manipulated to match supply and demand. The sun and the wind are far more capricious energy sources that operate outside of human control.

In 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker won the Presidency of the European Council after running on a platform that prioritized the development of what Juncker called the “EU Energy Union.”[12] The EU Energy Union builds upon the EU’s framework approach for 2030 that, similar to the targets set for 2020, commits the EU to cutting carbon emissions by 40%, achieve a 27% renewable energy mix, and improve energy efficiency by 27%.[13] The enforceability of the renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, however, was weakened in Juncker’s new framework: the 27% target is enforceable only at the EU level and not the national level.[14] This means that while the Union as a whole is legally bound to implement the framework, individual member states are not held responsible for their failure to do so. Unlike the 2020 goals, in the 2030 framework Member States will pledge national contributions to the framework targets. The hope is that “the peer pressure provided by regional consultations on the plans and the possibility of the Commission to make recommendations, together with the overall policy framework set by the other pieces of legislation in this package, should encourage Member States to pledge high, without allowing any free-riding.”[15] It is to early to determine if this approach will bring about the success of the 20-20-20 by 2020 plan.

In the immediate wake of the 2016 Paris Accord, the European Commission presented the “Clean Energy for All Europeans” package aimed at allowing the EU to meet its Accord obligations and stabilize the European energy sector.[16] The proposals comprising the package have three primary goals: “putting energy efficiency first, achieving global leadership in renewable energies, and providing a fair deal for consumers.”[17] Many criticized the proposals as lacking in ambition and insufficient to meet EU pledges in the Paris Accord.[18] While the Commission routinely opts to pass regulations that are directly applicable in EU Member States, many of the core proposals take the form of directives, which involve the EU dictating results and leaving to the member states discretion on the means to achieve them. Also of note is the Commission’s proposal to diminish grid priority for renewables. Long considered to be essential in bringing about a significant presence of renewables in the energy mix, grid prioritization for renewables nullifies the incentive for grid operators to utilize more reliable and cheap sources of energy like coal and gas.[19] Weakening this priority opens the possibility that a renewable plant may be built and never utilized, thus discouraging investment. Renewables simply cannot compete in a truly open energy market at this point in time.

Over the past sixteen months, the European Parliament has been negotiating its general approach to the Clean Energy for All Europeans package, culminating in adoption of a final position on January 17, 2018.[20] Regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency, Parliament’s response proposals are actually more aggressive than those drafted by the Council in many aspects. But not all recent developments are positive. While Parliament has called for a more stringent EU binding target of 35% renewable generation by 2030, it agreed with the Council’s proposal to drop the introduction of linear trajectories, which would have provided more incentive for Member States to meet their obligations.[21] Negotiations between the European governmental institutions began in February of 2018. The proposals that emerge will ultimately determine if the imperative goals outlined in the Paris Agreement can be achieved and, more importantly, if our planet will act to reverse the cataclysmic spiral of climate change before it is too late. It is vital that Europe’s forthcoming Clean Energy proposals are clearly articulated, ambitious yet feasible, capable of being implemented, and enforceable should implementation fail to occur.


[1] Ian Rae, Saving the Ozone Layer: Why the Montreal Protocol Worked, The Conversation (Sept. 9, 2012), http://theconversation.com/saving-the-ozone-layer-why-the-montreal-protocol-worked-9249.

[2] Id.

[3] Andreas Prahl & Elena Hoffman, European Climate Policy – History and State of Play, Climate Policy Info Hub (Nov. 14, 2014), http://climatepolicyinfohub.eu/european-climate-policy-history-and-state-play.

[4] Presidency Conclusions, Dublin European Council (June 1990).

[5] See Prahl, supra note 1.

[6] See e.g., Amanda M. Rosen, The Wrong Solution at the Right Time: The Failure of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, Politics & Policy 30, 35-39 (2014).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] See Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank: Third Report on the State of the Energy Union, at 3, COM (2017) 688 final (Nov. 23, 2017).

[11] Georg Zachmann, The European Energy Union: Slogan or an Important Step Towards Integration?, The Bruegel Newsletter, (Sept. 17, 2015), http://bruegel.org/2015/09/the-european-energy-union-slogan-or-an-important-step-towards-integration/; see also European Commission Press Release IP/15/4497, Energy Union: secure, sustainable, competitive, affordable energy for every European (Feb. 25, 2015) (noting that the EU is the largest energy importer in the world).

[12] Dave Keating, Does Juncker Have the Ambition for an Energy Union?, Politico (Feb. 5, 2015), https://www.politico.eu/article/does-juncker-have-the-ambition-for-an-energy-union/.

[13] Clean Energy Package: Clean Energy for All Europeans, Greenovate! Europe, http://www.greenovate-europe.eu/clean-energy-package-clean-energy-all-europeans. (last visited Mar. 11, 2018).

[14] See Prahl, supra note 1.

[15] Communication From the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank on Clean Energy for All Europeans, at 7, COM (2016) 860 final (Nov. 30, 2016).

[16] European Commission, Clean Energy for All Europeans, (Nov. 30, 2016), https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/energy-strategy-and-energy-union/clean-energy-all-europeans.

[17] Id.

[18] See e.g., Adam Brown, Something for Everyone?: The European Commission’s Winter “Clean Energy” Package on Energy Union, Global Energy Blog (Dec. 2, 2016), http://www.globalenergyblog.com/something-for-everyone-the-european-commissions-winter-clean-energy-package-on-energy-union-november-2016; Ania Drazkiewicz, Lackluster Commission Energy Package Inconsistent with Paris Agreement, Climate Action Network Europe (Nov. 30, 2016), http://www.caneurope.org/publications/press-releases/1280-energy-package-inconsistent-with-paris-agreement.

[19] See Arthur Neslen, Renewables Could Lose European Power Grid Priority, Documents Reveal, The Guardian (Nov. 1, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/01/renewables-could-lose-european-power-grid-priority-documents-reveal.

[20] See Aurelie Beauvais, The Clean Energy Package for Europeans Goes Forward, Solar Power Europe (Jan. 2018), http://www.solarpowereurope.org/newsletter/top-news/the-clean-energy-package-for-all-europeans-goes-forward/.

[21] Id.