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Anaïs Berthier

25th October 2021

European Green Deal
Clean energy
Fossil fuels

The fossil fuel crisis should rocket-launch the fight against climate change

The current global energy price hike must be a wake-up call for world leaders gathering soon for the COP26 meeting on climate in Glasgow. At its root are fossil fuels, and EU leaders need to turn this harsh reality into an opportunity to speed up Europe’s energy transition.

This is vital for our economies, but it is also obviously crucial to fight climate change - whose effects are no longer ‘hidden’ in the Global South but are making themselves fearsomely and tragically evident across Europe.

The events of the summer - floods in Belgium and Germany, and fires in Greece, Italy and Turkey - confirmed, if that was necessary, that climate change directly and very seriously impacts our lives. Decision-makers, including Angela Merkel, made tearful declarations, stressing that climate change needs to be taken seriously and that we must “hurry up” and “speed up the fight”.

But is the move going fast enough?

The IPCC report published in August clearly shows that measures adopted until now fall well short of addressing the sprawling impacts of climate change. And in tandem, the International Energy Agency’s dramatic shift in rhetoric in the last months shows us that we need nothing short of an energy transformation – cutting CO2 and methane to deliver a liveable planet.

Member States have started discussing the Fit for 55 package –  the new, ‘ambitious’ plan unveiled by the European Commission last July to ensure the EU meets its climate goals by 2030 – namely, reducing emissions by 55% en route to achieving bloc-wide carbon neutrality by 2050.

The number of initiatives the package contains is impressive, that’s certain – but some pitfalls can already be identified in relation to how seriously they are taking eliminating fossil fuels – the main culprits behind climate change. This is what came out from our analysis of the three policies of this package we will be paying careful attention to: the revision of the Energy Taxation Directive (ETD), the Renewable Energy Directive (RED2) and the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED).

In addition to these, the discussions around the taxonomy framework bring another series of concerns and show some inconsistencies with the stated objectives under the European Green Deal. Here are our takeaways.

We’re meant to phase out all fossil fuels

“Our current fossil fuel economy has reached its limit” said Von Der Leyen, as she unveiled the Fit for 55 package. But the inclusion of methane-based gas or any so-called “low carbon” gases in the Fit for 55 package would lock yet more fossil fuels into our energy mix, which goes against the whole point of the package.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

It must not be considered as a fossil fuel “exception” for heating, as suggested in the Energy Efficiency Directive proposal, as it may open a back door that will prevent shifting to renewables in housing.

It must also be fully excluded from the EU taxonomy for sustainable investment, as it is transparently not a sustainable move and could jeopardise Europe’s energy transition. The possible inclusion of gas in that framework would likely increase investments in activities utilising it and would be in total contradiction with the commitments undertaken by the European Commission both at international and EU level – making it illegal, as we have recently stated.

Similarly, let’s be wary of “fake renewables”. Replacing fossil fuels with so-called blue hydrogen, which is mostly produced with fossil fuels, is no route to reducing our impact.

Let’s not fund fossil fuels while we’re trying to eradicate them

Tax breaks for fossil fuels are harmful subsidies that prevent the energy transition by maintaining low prices for these fuels.

The revision of the Energy Taxation Directive (ETD) – which sets the minimum level of tax for energy products for the whole bloc – tackles many important issues by removing fuel subsidies for the aviation and maritime sectors. But the level of fuel taxation for some sectors – like fisheries – must be increased to reflect the impact this sector has on the climate.

The fisheries sector is completely overlooked but the emissions it generates are quite substantial: the whole EU fleet emitted as much as Malta in 2019 just with its fuel consumption. And some fishing techniques - like bottom trawling - emit as much CO2 as the whole aviation sector by destroying seabeds, which are one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks.

Closed-door decisions can come to no good

The European Parliament is being left out of the ETD revision process. The directive will only be adopted via unanimity within the Council (in accordance with the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU). That also means that the European Parliament has no say in the reform. The Commission refused to discuss or revise this outdated legislative procedure that keeps people representatives out of the decision making process.

This is a missed opportunity that keeps the democratic gap between the EU and its citizens wide open.

We need to increase renewable energy targets

The Commission’s proposed target of 42% renewables in Europe’s energy mix by 2030 is a step in the right direction, but it needs a reality check if we actually want to tackle climate change. The EU’s share of renewable energies in gross final consumption needs to reach 50% by 2030 to ensure we meet the 1.5ºC objective in the Paris Agreement.

Cooperation and commitment are key to meeting this target, and it is clearer than ever that EU Institutions and Member States must act in solidarity to ensure we achieve it. Recent case law from the Court of Justice of the EU on the energy solidarity principle confirms that Member States, when setting their own energy policy, must take into account the interest of the Union as a whole. This, of course, includes reaching the EU’s renewable energy target.

The energy and climate crises should not be separated and resolving both means people and governments win out – from citizens being able to afford their energy bills to governments reducing the scale of the climate challenges their current fossil fuel subsidies are locking in.

As leaders gear up to gather in Glasgow for the COP26, EU Member States must lead by example by committing to give up all fossil fuels in the shortest time possible – genuinely the shortest time possible – and to invest in renewable energies and energy efficiency.

We need to tackle the climate and energy crises – intrinsically linked to the biodiversity crisis – and as the UN just warned our window of opportunity is closing. Let’s do it in a fair and democratic way, and do it urgently, to show the world this is possible.