16 yrs
Brussels in brief, WW200811

Debating Europe’s energy future


A sense of history in the making was in the air on 30 October as politicians, environmentalists, researchers, scientists, economists, lawyers, business leaders and journalists gathered for a day-long energy conference in Brussels.

Andris Piebalgs, EU Commissioner for Energy, told attendees at the Cercle Royal Gaulois that the proposed climate and energy legislative package should be moved forward despite the current global financial crisis.

Piebalgs said it is completely irresponsible for politicians to postpone adopting the package since problems associated with unchecked climate change will intensify with each passing year.

“The global challenge is there and we should react to it,” he told the Friends of Europe summit which covered the economy, energy supply and the environment.

Piebalgs said the legislative package would also benefit Europe because it would lessen its dependence on imported fuels as well as promoting renewable energies, nuclear power and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). He added that the package would result in challenges for some sectors and individuals but new jobs would also be created.

The summit, called Defining Europe’s Energy Strategy, provided diverse and passionate views on international cooperation, trade policies, greenhouse gases, economic development, oil prices, coal, sustainability, wind power and the emerging middle class in China and India.

One of the three sessions was marked by differing opinions on carbon storage from Chris Davies, MEP and Rapporteur on the CCS Directive, who believes it is an essential short-term solution to rising CO2 emissions, and Eddie O’Connor, speaking on behalf of the European Wind Energy Association, who pointed out many unresolved technical issues and economic difficulties involved with the controversial system.

Davies said he was angry and frustrated that funding to get the demonstration projects for CCS up and running by 2015 hadn’t yet materialised.

He said his objective is to promote CCS and accelerate its development because of the enormous potential it has in removing CO2 from the atmosphere. “It is certainly part of the solution of global warming.”

Davies said the biggest problem now is that the European Commission is divided on the issue and as a result no method of financing the demonstration projects has been suggested.

“Time is very short,” he said. “Progress has to be made. It’s time the Commission got off the fence.”

O’Connor, Chief Executive of  Mainstream Renewable Power, told the audience that high oil prices drive the market to invest in and use renewable energies.

“Cheap oil gives the impression of a semi-infinite resource,” O’Connor said.

On top of that, he said, changing oil prices can cause extreme volatility in the market. He said the recent rapid increases and decreases in the cost of a barrel of oil, going from $65 US to a high of $147 US and back down again, seriously erode profitability.

Instead, he said, major infrastructure investments should be made in wind power and electrical grids.

“There is enough wind on land and over the seas of northern Europe to supply a significant amount of electricity demand,” O’Connor said.

To realise this huge potential, he said the onshore grids need to be upgraded and an offshore supergrid has to be built. This might cost €360 billion over a 10-year period, he said.

Price signals, however, are the only catalyst to make this transformation occur.

“The oil price is the key driver of all change.”

Janna Remes, a Senior Fellow from the San Francisco-based McKinsey Global Institute, said meeting the carbon challenge actually presents many opportunities, especially through more efficient uses of energy.

Remes said policy makers can provide incentives but business leaders need to get more involved in initiating energy efficiency improvements which can yield substantial cost savings.

Solomon Passy, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bulgarian National Assembly, said developing and implementing more global or European standardised policies could save governments and consumers staggering sums of money to be spent on other needs.

In response to questions from the audience, O’Connor said renewable energies can provide  huge opportunities for small businesses in Europe.

He said the design of the offshore grid has to be improved and the cost has to come down. He also acknowledged that wind at a certain location does vary over time but a major benefit of a supergrid is that “wind is always blowing somewhere.”

He also said he didn’t believe in CCS, which would involve capturing CO2 emissions before they were released into the atmosphere and storing them underground. “I can’t think of a way to do it economically.”

O’Connor said Europe’s proposed climate and energy package will help the region, even during the current financial crisis. He also said Europe has to invest in major energy infrastructure projects just like President Franklin Roosevelt did to get the US out of the Great Depression in the 1930s: “Europe needs that now.”

Lastly, O’Connor said society should start preparing now for a non-oil future that will happen sometime this century.

At one point, Davies seemed visibly rattled by a question asking why he was defending CCS.

He said the world needs to accept the tremendous carbon reduction potential that the technology could provide.

“If we do not, the world is fucked, okay, absolutely screwed.”

He told the audience he was an environmentalist who believed in renewable energies and that CCS would only be a stop-gap measure for the next century until humankind could come up with another solution.

The CCS trial projects, he added, could be conducted at a cost of €10 billion over a decade.

In another session, Paul Magnette, Belgian Minister for Climate and Energy, said it would be “a terrible mistake” if the proposed EU package was not approved because of the financial crisis.

Agreeing, Gavin Edwards, Head of Greenpeace’s Climate and Energy unit, said some European politicians are demonstrating a “crisis of leadership” by trying to undermine the package. Edwards also said global warming can be tackled if people adopt the same sort of philosophy that politicians and engineers embraced when they successfully put men on the moon.

In the last session, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reminded the audience that science shows there is a clear climate emergency and an urgent need to fight global warming.

Tom Burke, Founding Director of E3G Third Generation Environmentalism, said there is no technological or economic reason for not fighting climate change. Without a sustainable climate, he added, economic activity would not grow.


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