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EU states handed ambitious renewable energy targets

The European Commission put forward ambitious targets on Wednesday to boost the EU’s overall consumption of renewable energies to 20% by 2020. But while the plans to promote technologies such as solar and wind were largely welcomed, Brussels faces widespread criticism over controversial biofuels targets.

In March 2007, EU leaders committed to increasing the share of renewable energies in the EU’s final energy consumption to 20% by 2020, and promised to up the use of biofuels in transport to 10% by the same date. Since then, the Commission has been charged with formulating policy proposals to reach the targets, triggering a flurry of stakeholder activity. In the weeks leading up to the publication of the proposals, controversy surrounded the Commission’s plans to promote renewables through the trading of guarantees of origin, and the sustainability of the biofuels target was questioned by the Commission’s own scientists.

Differentiated targets for EU member states
A proposal for a new EU directive, published on 23 January, mandates each member state to increase its share of renewable energies - such as solar, wind or hydro - in an effort to boost the EU’s share from 8.5% today to 20% by 2020.

A separate target to increase biofuels use to 10% of transport fuel consumption is to be achieved by every country as part of the overall EU objective. To achieve these objectives, every nation in the 27-member bloc is required to increase its share of renewables by 5.5% from 2005 levels, with the remaining increase calculated on the basis of per capita gross domestic product (GDP). EU countries are free to decide their preferred ‘mix’ of renewables in order to take account of their different potentials, but must present national action plans (NAPs) outlining their strategies to the Commission by 31 March 2010. The plans will need to be defined along three sectors: electricity, heating and cooling and transport.

Member states like the UK and Belgium face a steep “climb”, while Finland and Sweden, for example, which already have a significant share of renewables in their energy mix, have less effort to make. (Hungary: share of renewables 4.3% in 2005, share required 13% by 2020.)  (See EU contries targets tabell)
The Commission has also set a series of interim targets, in order to ensure steady progress towards the 2020 targets:
* 25% average between 2011 and 2012;
* 35% average between 2013 and 2014;
* 45% average between 2015 and 2016, and;
* 65% average between 2017 and 2018.

While only the 2020 target is legally binding, a senior Commission official on 22 January said that the Commission could pursue legal action in cases where a member state’s progress is so limited that it is clear the final target cannot be reached.

Virtual power flows
The Commission’s proposal allows for the virtual trade in renewable energies involving Guarantees of Origin (GOs), which certify the renewable origin of electricity produced. This provision already features in existing EU renewables legislation, but has hardly been utilized, according to the Commission.
Under the system, member states may invest in renewable energy production in another member state in exchange for GOs, which can be counted towards the renewables target. But the Commisson has attached the condition that a member state must have already reached its own interim target before being allowed to receive investments and transfer GOs to another member state.
Physical trade in renewable energies is permitted and encouraged in the EU’s internal market, but currently accounts for less than 6% of the electricity traded between EU member states, according to the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC).

Buildings and district heating
While the focus of the directive is on the promotion of large scale renewable energy installations, member states are nevertheless requested to use “minimum levels of energy from renewable sources in all new or refurbished buildings”,  and the text makes provisions for the mutual recognition of certifications for technicians who install renewable technologies in buildings. Architects and planners are also to benefit from member state ‘guidance’ when planning new constructions, while local and regional administrative bodies should be required “to consider the installation of equipment and systems for the use of heating, cooling and electricity from renewable sources and for district heating and cooling when planning, designing, building and refurbishing industrial or residential areas”.

Biofuels and sustainability
Brussels has come under acute pressure from green politicians, NGOs and the scientific community to provide robust sustainability criteria to ensure that the 10% biofuels target does not lead to ecosystem loss, deforestation, population displacement, food price increases and even higher CO2 output.

The Commission’s text includes the following criteria:
* Land use - old forest with no or limited human intervention cannot be used for biofuels cultivation, nor can “highly biodiverse grasslands”, or lands with a “high carbon stock” like wetlands or “pristine peatlands”;
* CO2 impact - the overall greenhouse gas (GHG) savings from biofuels production must be at least 35% in order for cultivation to be considered sustainable.

The Commission will put forward sustainability criteria for energy use of biomass by the end of 2010. During his presentation of the proposals on 23 January, EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso said that the criteria put forward by the Commission will foster the promotion of international sustainability standards in biofuels trade where previously none have existed. The safeguards are “simple enough to be workable, robust enough to be credible,” he said. (EurAkriv)