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21st Sep 2018

Environmentalists attack 'no ambition' EU climate bills

European energy ministers drew their battlelines on Monday (18 December) by adopting common positions on new climate bills which have thoroughly disappointed environmental lobby groups.

They stuck to targets that were agreed by their government leaders in October 2014.

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  • EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete (l) speaking to French environment deputy minister Brune Poirson (Photo: Council of the European Union)

"Member states abandon pretence of climate ambition," one NGO, the World Wide Fund (WWF), headlined its reaction.

Ministers in the Council of the EU voted in Brussels on their amended versions of four complex legislative proposals, which can only become law after the council and the European Parliament thrash out a deal between them, something that is expected in the first half of next year.

The files are part of what energy commissioner Maros Sefcovic called a "mega package", when he presented the 1,000 pages worth of legal text in November 2016.

The legislative process seems to follow a familiar pattern, with the council changing the targets in the proposals to become less difficult or ambitious, or to favour the status quo, while MEPs have adopted positions, or are expected to, that contain more climate ambition than proposed by the European Commission.

Biofuels

The commission for example is proposing an overhaul of the EU's biofuels policy.

In the mid-2000s, the EU embraced such liquid fuels, based on crops, without distinction.

Gradually, the realisation dawned that food-based crops should not be used for fuel for cars, but by then EU policies had already helped create an industry on which jobs rely, and a subsequent powerful lobby.

The commission proposed that the target for food-based crops is lowered, from the already agreed seven-percent share of all transport in 2020, to 3.8 percent in 2030.

The council however agreed on Monday that the existing seven percent target "is maintained to provide certainty to investors," it said in a press release.

The commission had suggested that the so-called second generation of biofuels, which are considered to have less negative side-effects, should make up 6.8 percent of all transport fuels in 2030.

The council however said that this figure should be three percent.

"European energy ministers meeting in Brussels today agreed European drivers should be obliged to burn massive quantities of food crops in their fuel tanks until 2030," anti-poverty lobby group Oxfam International said in a statement.

"Despite burning food for fuel meaning taking it from the poorest and most vulnerable to food price shocks, the EU seems set on driving ahead with their destructive policy," it added.

Renewable energy

Ministers also adopted their red lines on what the EU's share of renewable energy in 2030 should be.

They stuck to the 27 percent target that was agreed by EU government leaders in October 2014 at a summit in Brussels.

However, in part because since then a global climate treaty has been adopted in Paris and costs have dropped, the EU commission has proposed that the renewables figure should be 30 percent.

At a press conference just after the meeting, EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said "the commission would have liked that today's council would have established a higher target for renewable energy".

MEPs want to go even further, and support a 35 percent target, guaranteeing haggling between the three sides when they meet for their backroom talks.

Ministers also stuck to a 27 percent "indicative" target in energy savings, meaning that by 2030 energy use in the EU should have become 27 percent more efficient.

MEPs want a 40 percent efficiency improvement.

Here too, the council referred to the 2014 deal at the EU summit as justification.

The agreement on climate and energy reached in 2014 was hard-fought and carefully balanced, which helps explain why ministers hold on to it.

But the summit conclusions also said that the ambition level could be reviewed depending on the outcome of international climate talks in Paris, which yielded a landmark treaty in 2015.

Coal power

Ministers also discussed where to get stand-by power from.

The commission suggested that as of 2020, public payments to guarantee such stand-by power should no longer come from coal power, which is the most CO2-intensive of the fossil fuels.

The council however suggested that this could be delayed to 2025 for new coal-fired power plants, and in other cases even 2035.

Canete said at the press conference that there was no unanimity on this file, and said that for different reasons, the compromise was not supported by Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

Climate lobby groups like Greenpeace and E3G were also critical.

"Europe's coal plants will think Christmas has come early as EU energy ministers stand ready to offer them near limitless subsidies," said Greenpeace.

"Today confirmed that EU governments are unwilling to make the right choices to build a inclusive, competitive, and clean economy. Given a choice, EU governments have chosen coal over renewables; incumbent players over consumers; national control over efficiency," said E3G in a statement.

The ministerial discussion began in the morning and ran until around midnight.

"The debate in the Council has shown the determination of all member states to create a resilient Energy Union," said Estonian economic affairs minister Kadri Simson, who chaired the meeting.

"Today's agreement is its cornerstone, providing robust rules, an effective framework for implementation and is future-proof," she said.

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