Maybe Peter Altmaier just wasn’t able to make the switch from Berlin-mode to Brussels-mode. When it comes to the energy transition, Germany’s economics minister likes to talk up the problems, and the cost of clean energy is an issue especially close to his heart. In Germany this has long earned him a reputation as an opponent of the transition.
But on 11 June Altmaier was acting in an international capacity. As the Council of the European Union sought common ground over the right degree of ambition for the expansion of renewables up to 2030, Altmaier was lamenting high costs and limited technological potential. In short: “The overall focus must be on financial viability, on feasibility.”
The various EU institutions – Commission, Parliament and Council – are currently hammering out the details of European energy policy for the decade following 2020 in tripartite meetings. The basis for the discussions is the European Commission’s “Winter Package” from late 2016, which is now being worked though in separate blocks. Broadly speaking, the Parliament favours a more ambitious outcome, in contrast to the Council’s more conservative position, with the Commission acting as mediator.
The Council is in turn split into two camps: the Visegrád group, made up of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, wants to keep binding climate obligations to a minimum, while several western European countries are seeking greater ambition. These include France and the Netherlands – and, until now, Germany. “This is not a stance traditionally associated with Germany,” remarked Europe expert Matthias Buck from the thinktank Agora Energiewende of Altmaier’s speech.
In concrete terms, the Parliament wants all member states to obtain an average of 35 percent of their energy needs from renewables (across the entire energy sector, not just for generation). The Council had originally proposed a target of 27 percent, but this figure dates back to 2014, before the Paris climate accord. Since then, the consensus has shifted towards a minimum of 32 percent. Altmaier, however, seemed to imply that anything over 30 percent would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, when accused of blocking a more ambitious target by several environmental organisations, the minister took to twitter to dismiss the allegations as “untrue and false”.
Confused and annoyed
This of course prompted speculation as to what Altmaier might actually have meant – but as Jan Rosenow of the advisory body Regulatory Assistance Project pointed out, even more crucial is “what he is understood to have meant”. The Czech and Polish representatives were quick to voice explicit praise for Altmaier’s warnings, and the remark by EU commissioner Miguel Cañete, concluding the session, that the energy transition is not a burden but an opportunity, is likely to have been a veiled jab at Altmaier.
The matter was evidently a source of annoyance within the German government too: State secretary for the environment Jochen Flasbarth was quoted calling Altmaier’s behaviour “a clear breach of interdepartmentally agreed positioning”. When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the environment ministry said that the whole affair was “water under the bridge” in any case, as the Council and Parliament had since agreed on 32 percent after all. In a statement, environment minister Svenja Schulze claimed to have “made every effort to improve on our original stance of pursuing a target of just 30 percent from the beginning.”
A week later, an agreement was reached on two further components of the winter package, energy efficiency and governance – the ground rules for Europe’s Energy Union. The 2030 energy savings target was set at 32.5 percent, measured against an energy consumption forecast from 2007. This is a “huge success,” says Christian Noll of German energy efficiency network Deneff, though he believes the figure could be even higher, and agrees that Germany’s days as a “climate action trailblazer” are over.
Although the efficiency target itself is not binding, member states are subject to fixed yearly savings requirements. And this is “the part that really matters,” according to Jan Rosenow. After a great deal of wrangling, the negotiators settled on 0.8 percent. Although the regulation currently in force officially requires consumption to be cut by 1.5 percent a year, a raft of exceptions means that in practice the reduction is only around half of this. The Council had aimed for an even lower target.
EU member states must now submit national plans to the Commission detailing how they intend to meet the new targets. The expansion of renewables will additionally be subject to interim targets: 18 percent of the overall target must be reached by 2022, 43 percent by 2025, and 65 percent by 2027. This will allow the Commission to track progress or take action to fill any gaps, although the degree of pressure it can exert on national governments is likely to be limited.
Meanwhile, the Commission is also developing a climate strategy for the period up to 2050, which is to take into account the remaining available carbon budget, as demanded by the Parliament. MEPs also wanted to include a 2050 deadline for carbon neutrality, but this goal was diluted by the Council, with 2050 replaced by an unspecified point in time. “The EU governments lacked the courage for such a major step,” commented parliamentary rapporteur Claude Turmes of the Greens, who hopes for greater ambition when the decisions come up for review in 2023.
No hope for Paris goals
Whatever one’s view of the latest compromises, one thing is clear: they are far too low for the climate targets agreed by the international community. The EU is set to make a 40 percent cut in emissions by 2030, with other targets oriented towards this order of magnitude. According to Matthias Buck, savings of up to 55 percent are in fact needed. Buck predicts that commissioner Cañete will be in an awkward position at this year’s climate summit in Poland: “Everyone knows: Europe has a target that is incompatible with the Paris climate agreement.” On the other hand, there is very little prospect of member states raising the stakes, at least in the short term.
Peter Altmaier, for his part, proclaimed in Brussels that the citizens of Europe would lose confidence in politicians “if they see that we set highly ambitious targets, only to realise a few years later that we are nowhere near achieving them.” This could be construed as an argument to do more to ensure the targets are not missed – Altmaier, however, obviously prefers to set the bar so low that failure is impossible. There is a major flaw in this logic though: the commitments arising from the Paris agreement, which Altmaier ostensibly still hopes to meet. The fact that we are currently on course to miss them is something that governments will have to explain to their voters too.