European environmental groups push EU to act on climate

Civic groups brainstorm green policies at Vienna meeting

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What’s left of the glaciers around the Grossglockner, Austria’s highest peak, makes it clear why Europe must act on climate. @bberwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

European environmental leaders this week called on the EU adopt an innovative mindset for dealing with climate and energy issues. Europe stands to gain from adopting progressive policies that create economic opportunities for businesses and improve life for citizens.

“Innovation, research and development will be at the center of decarbonising,” said Angela Köppl, speaking at the Sept. 26 annual meeting of the European Environmental Bureau in Vienna.The EEB is an umbrella for about 150 NGOs, think tanks and other civic groups representing more than 15 million citizens.

The group’s annual meeting included a break-out session on climate and energy, where panelists  discussed how Europe can move ahead on achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement, which requires decarbonization within a few decades.

One concrete step would be a European energy bill of rights, legally enshrining the right of citizens to produce and sell power, said Jonathan Goventa, a director of the energy policy think tank E3G. “Paris changes everything. Getting to  net zero by second half of century, that gives us a deadline. It changes the logic of our energy infrastructure investments. We need to avoid locking into assets that are unsustainable,” said Goventa.

Large-scale citizen ownership of renewable energy would be a huge step in the transition to a carbon-neutral energy system in Europe, said Brussels-based ClientEarth attorney Josh Roberts.

Citizen ownership, via community wind or solar farms, for example, gives consumers an economic stake in renewables and creates an incentive for creation of local capital and businesses, said Roberts, who advocates for improving the legal and regulatory framework for renewable energy production in Europe. Roberts was not at the EEB conference, but has published a paper on empowering citizens as part of a revamped European energy policy.

“You have to create the right regulatory environment for small businesses that are going to help get people involved in the market.  It’s about enterprises and cooperatives,” he said. “It helps with local acceptance of renewable energy technologies, and it helps facilitate consciousness change among citizens,” said Roberts, whose group is the European version of Earthjustice, which often represents U.S. conservation organizations in legal battles with corporations and government entities.

Because self-consumption and community energy are not treated anywhere in EU law, “ordinary consumers have very weak protections for their investment and have to compete against large energy companies, often at a disadvantage,” he said.

The Vienna session was aimed at making sure that European civil society’s voice remains strong in environmental debates, but came at a challenging time for the European Union, which still has no idea how Britain’s decision to leave the EU will affect climate and energy policy. At the same time, a subset of eastern European countries shows little inclination to make a short-term shift away from coal.

More generally, the growing strength of right- and nationalist-tilting parties in EU member states is testing the the sustainability of common EU policy on energy and other issues like migration and refugees.

“Ninety percent of post-communist countries have politicians who don’t recognize the reality and the importance of the situation right now,” said Veronika Galeková co-founder and director of the Slovak Association of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Industry. “Slovakia at the end of the chart, Slovakia is the example of how it should not work. We still support fossil fuels,” she said. Just last week the Slovak government declared it will support coal power with subsidies that are under investigation by the European Commission.

“It’s been a depressing and frustrating few months, and it’s pushed us to reconsider some of the basics,” said Goventa. “We need to get back to making our citizens lives better,” he said, explaining that environmental groups and governments need to make sure citizens understand the benefits of forging ahead with decarbonization — and what it will take.

As much as anything, it means making sustainable investment decisions right now, said Matthias Buck, an analyst with Agora Energiewende.

“The investment decisions we make today will stay in the system until 2050, said Buck, who worked on energy issues with the EU commission for 10 years before moving to the NGO sector. More subsidies for fossil fuels will make it all the harder to reach the Paris climate targets, he said.

“What we don’t do in the next decade, we’ll have to catch up. Listening to the Commission leadership at the moment, they do not give the impression they have the courage for higher ambition,” he said, encouraging citizen groups to pressure national governments to make sure there is adequate investment for supporting the transition away from fossil fuels.

Buck’s think tank has already drawn up a draft master plan for Germany’s transition away from coal, and the country could adopt it as part of an update to a larger national climate and energy plan due out by early next year. The master plan identifies target dates to shut down all of the countries coal plants, starting with the oldest and dirtiest, and suggests that a regional structural fund of 250 million Euros per year (through 2040) for the regions affected by the shutdowns, said Philipp Litz, another Agora analyst who was not at the EEB meeting.

Even with a big energy saving push, current projections show Germany won’t be able to reach the Paris climate goals with coal in the mix. The European  emissions trading plan isn’t working because the price of carbon is not going high enough, Litz said.

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