Posted on 18 May 2022
The European Commission’s REPowerEU plan published today aims to rapidly reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuels. All efforts to reduce fossil fuel use are much needed, and the plan includes a number of good proposals on energy efficiency and renewables. However, there are also some black spots hidden in the details which risk undermining the EU’s transition to a 100% renewable and nature-friendly energy system.
The plan proposes measures to drive energy efficiency, diversify supplies and accelerate the EU’s clean energy transition, and contains a number of positive initiatives. For example compared to the initial communication presented in March, the greater prominence given to energy efficiency and the suggestion that the 2030 target be increased is very welcome, even if action on this front is essentially left up to Member States; mandating rooftop solar installations is another welcome addition.
However, proposals to replace Russian oil and gas by investing in additional gas infrastructure, counting on unrealistic levels of hydrogen or increasing the use of bioenergy without restrictions on feedstocks, risks prolonging the EU’s dependence on fossil fuels and jeopardising climate and nature targets.
To finance the plan, the Commission is proposing to mobilise EUR 300 billion, mainly from the already existing EU Recovery Fund. Only EUR 20 billion would constitute “new money”, which would be generated through the selling of new permits to pollute for industry - representing 250 million tons of CO2, which would directly damage the EU’s emissions reduction effort in the ongoing Fit for 55 negotiations.
“The Commission’s plan to accelerate the EU’s shift to clean energy solutions such as energy efficiency, wind and solar power is very welcome,” said Ester Asin, Director of the WWF European Policy Office. “But financing this by selling pollution permits is misguided, as is building more fossil gas infrastructure or relying on increased biomass use. That will just prolong our dependence on fossil fuel imports and jeopardise climate goals.”
The plan rightly emphasises the need for a huge expansion in solar and wind, and was complemented by an amendment to the revised Renewable Energy Directive which is currently being negotiated. This amendment would increase the 2030 renewables target from the previously proposed 40% to 45%, and include provisions on permitting and mapping for renewables with clear timelines for member states to identify space for renewable energy deployment and designate ‘go-to areas' in which such development is expected to have a low environmental impact.
WWF cautions that these go-to areas should be in urban and industrial sites first - and as the Commission proposes these should exclude national and international protected areas like Natura 2000 sites. In addition, their designation must be based on robust assessments and an ongoing stakeholder engagement process, which would also lower the risk of communities’ opposition to new projects.
Worryingly however, the Commission proposes to declare all renewable energy and grid and storage projects as being of "overriding public interest" everywhere, and in ‘go to’ areas to exempt projects from the requirement to carry out a dedicated environmental impact assessment and appropriate assessment as foreseen in the Habitats Directive. This poses a serious threat to EU goals to protect and restore nature and risks raising local opposition.
“Speeding up permitting is a good idea, and will inject new impetus to the ramp up of wind and solar power across the EU,” said Alex Mason, Head of EU climate and energy policy at the WWF European Policy Office. “But the way to do this is to fix inefficient bureaucratic procedures, not weaken environmental legislation. Indiscriminate exemptions from nature laws for renewable energy projects could harm biodiversity and stir up public opposition - causing conflicts and further delays.”