I want you to imagine for a minute you are walking on top of a cliff overlooking the North Sea. The wind is so strong you can lean your whole body into it. Below, almighty waves, swept up in the gale, are crashing onto the rocks.
Now imagine you are in Spain, or perhaps Italy or Portugal. The sun is soaking into your skin. The sky dazzles with the intense southern light that bounces glaringly off buildings and cars.
With such immense renewable sources of power to hand, it seems incredible that Europe is still having to fork out for fossil fuel imports. It is as though a farmer with a huge and fertile orchard were forced to pay an unreliable neighbour for fruit while his own rot in his back garden.
The 27 European Heads of State met in Brussels today for their first-ever summit on energy. What was the result? They reiterated the need for an internal market in electricity, for new infrastructure and for cutting greenhouse gases by 80-95% by 2050. That’s positive – they have at least not gone back on what they previously committed to. But there seem to be no new initiatives to achieve these old commitments. They acknowledge the need for long-term strategic thinking, but have so far not come up with any visionary ideas for the period beyond 2020.
None of the conclusions from Friday’s meeting goes beyond what the Heads of State have already agreed over the past two years for the period up to 2020. For the energy sector, 2020 is just around the corner and Europe’s leaders must address the long-term challenges arising from the dual crisis of climate change and rising global competition for scarce, increasingly expensive and depleting fossil fuels.
On Friday 4 February, European Heads of State will gather in Brussels for a European Union summit on energy. It’s the first time they have held a summit on energy and it shows how important energy policy has now become. You can say that with this summit energy has finally reached top of the political agenda.
It is symbolic of EU’s energy problems that tomorrow’s EU energy summit may be overshadowed – at least in the media – by EU leaders discussing the crisis in Egypt.
The instability in Egypt has caused a surge in oil prices, past the $100 per barrel mark, due to fears about disruptions in oil flows through the Suez canal. What better reason could there be to focus on switching to domestically produced renewable energy such as wind and solar? What better reason to decide now to work towards 100% renewable energy by 2050 and agree concrete intermediate goals on how to get there?
The International Energy Agency’s 2010 World Energy Outlook, released today, should finally stamp out the myth that renewable energies are dependent on subsidies.
“Fossil-fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $312 billion in 2009”, says the IEA, while renewable energies in the same year received just $57 billion of “government support” according to the IEA.
In other words, renewables got just $1 for every $5-6 given to fossil fuels last year.
The IEA goes on to forecast that government support for renewables will go up to $205 billion in 2035. That is still – a quarter of a century in the future – less than two-thirds of the sum being doled out to fossil fuels today.
In this time of budgetary constraints, governments would be wise to remove the billions of dollars spent in subsidising fossil fuels as well as nuclear. That in turn would mean less subsidies would be needed to bring in new, smarter and cleaner energy technologies such as wind power.
I was asked recently if I thought it was true that China is dragging its feet on emissions cuts because it is waiting until it has a clear lead in green technology, and then it will allow a post-Kyoto climate deal to go ahead, knowing it can sell its technology all over the world market.
There is no doubt that the global race for renewable energy technology leadership is on. It is also clear that delaying a global legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas reductions could help any competing country to overtake Europe. It makes sense for others to try to slow down European renewable energy technology advances while implementing ambitious industrial policy measures at home. It is not only China challenging European leadership, but also the United States, India, South Korea and a growing list of other nations.
Europe invented the Internet and left it for foreign companies to reap the commercial benefits. I would hate to see a similar development in wind energy. Increasing Europe’s emissions reduction target from 20 to 30% would be a smart move to help maintain Europe’s technological leadership. However, the European Commission’s Communication published this week fell short of recommending a 30% cut, which is disappointing. That’s why EWEA has written to MEPs urging them to agree to 30% domestic GHG reductions by 2020, in order to maintain Europe’s leadership in renewable energy technologies, particularly wind power.
A move to 30% would give a very strong signal to investors that Europe means business when it talks about green growth and a sustainable economy.