RePowerEU: European Parliament votes to weaken EU environmental rules

Posted on December, 14 2022

In its vote on changes to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) under the RePowerEU package, the European Parliament today rubber stamped the Commission’s proposed weakening of environmental rules by exempting certain renewable energy projects from important legislation such as environmental impact assessments (EIAs).
This - like some aspects of the emergency Regulation provisionally adopted by the Council on 24 November - sets a dangerous precedent for other infrastructure development and risks public opposition to renewables that could slow down the energy transition. There were however a few small chinks of light, for example excluding marine mammal migratory routes from ‘go-to’ areas.

The RePowerEU package was launched in May with the aim of reducing our dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and a rapid shift away from fossil fuels would benefit both the EU’s energy security and climate action. To achieve this, the Commission has proposed exempting renewable energy projects in ‘go to’ areas (see below) from EIAs and the appropriate assessment required under the Birds and Habitats Directives. It has also proposed that all renewables automatically be presumed to be in the “overriding public interest”; this was also provisionally adopted by the Council on 24 November under emergency treaty provisions and is expected to be made law later this month.

“The key to the much needed rapid expansion of wind and solar power is better spatial planning and more administrative capacity in permitting authorities, not scrapping environmental protection. Environmental impact assessments are critical to ensuring the acceleration of renewables does not come at the expense of nature or the opportunity for public consultation. Exempting renewables from such assessments is counterproductive, as it risks generating public opposition and leading to further challenges and delays,” warned Alex Mason, Head of Climate and Energy at WWF European Policy Office.

The European Commission has proposed the designation of ‘go-to’ areas for renewables, which WWF supports. However, the European Parliament failed to prevent ‘go-to’ areas for hydropower and bioenergy, both of which are extremely problematic in climate and/or biodiversity terms and must therefore be treated differently from other forms of renewable energy.

Hydropower is not green…. and neither is most bioenergy

Hydropower plants constitute massive obstructions for migratory fish species, and facilitated procedures for the construction of new hydropower plants in go-to areas - as supported by the European Parliament - would lead to further damage to river ecosystems for negligible climate benefits compared to what can be generated by wind and solar power. The Living Planet Report 2022 released by WWF already shows that freshwater species populations have seen the greatest overall global decline (83%) among all species groups.

Claire Baffert, Senior Water Policy Officer at WWF European Policy Office said: “European rivers are already on life support and we cannot allow them to be further fragmented by hydropower barriers. These new rules will inevitably lead to increased interest in building new hydropower plants or reintroducing controversial ones, which would have very damaging consequences for our freshwater ecosystems while generating very little power.”

Meanwhile EU rules in the RED on what types of biomass can be counted as fully renewable and carbon neutral remain woefully inadequate. As a result, more and more trees and crops are being burnt in the name of climate action even though that increases emissions dramatically compared to fossil fuels. Until or unless these rules are fixed, biomass plants and sourcing areas should under no circumstances be eligible for any exemptions from existing rules. The Parliament has kept the requirement that biomass combustion plants be subject to an environmental impact assessment, but there could still be ‘go to’ areas for bioenergy and like all renewables it will benefit from the other relaxations in the rules.

Juliette Lunel, bioenergy policy officer at WWF European Policy Officer, said: “Burning trees and crops for energy is completely counterproductive in climate terms, and it is therefore extremely disappointing that the Parliament has decided to allow ‘go to’ areas for bioenergy. This makes it even more critical that limits be imposed on biomass in the other negotiations on the RED.”

Marine mammal migratory routes

In better news, marine mammals will see their migratory routes protected, with MEPs voting to exclude marine mammal migratory routes from “go-to areas” for offshore renewable energy, and requiring Member States to designate such areas using an ecosystem-based approach to maritime spatial planning. This follows the requirements of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive which has created a pivotal public policy for Member States to address the climate and biodiversity crises making informed, long-term and collective choices to help distribute human activities at sea in a manner that is sustainable, from nature recovery and protection, to offshore renewables and fisheries. 

Antonia Leroy, Head of Ocean Policy at WWF European Policy Office said, “While bad for nature and climate overall, today marks a milestone, with Parliament underscoring how essential sound planning is at sea to secure harmony between new infrastructure like offshore wind and space for nature to thrive. The EU’s shift to renewables must go hand-in-hand with effective nature restoration and protection – these are key ingredients in the formula for a truly sustainable economy.”

Florian Cassier
Climate Communications Officer
WWF European Policy Office 
+32 479 33 92 11

Angelika Pullen
Communications Director
WWF European Policy Office
+32 473 947 966
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