EU member states recently released their 2015 emissions data, and the projections on whether they were on track to meet their 2020 environmental commitments. Out of these 11 have already exceeded their national ceilings, while only Croatia is on track to meet 2030 emissions targets. The UK is one of the few large current member states to have non-exceeded its ceiling in 2015, and is on track to meet the majority of its 2020 targets.
As the revised Renewable Energy Directive will come into effect in 2020, the EU should learn from successful case studies the means to improve the environmental impact of over-polluting member states such as Belgium, France, and Germany. The UK’s environmental developments should send a signal to other large member states about the policy adjustments needed to combat climate change while keeping energy affordable.
The UK, despite having one of the highest polluting coal powered plants in Europe, Drax, has managed to be proactive about environmental policy, taking advantage of the scientific consensus around biomass. The Drax power plant is currently seeking to fully convert to being powered by biomass, a carbon-neutral source of energy, of which the UK is a leading consumer, accounting for 1/3 of global imports.
The Drax power station in North Yorkshire
There is significant concern around the future of bioenergy in general at the EU level following 2020 as a result of recent developments, which may have member states fall behind the UK in environmental sustainability once the UK leaves the Union. One of the significant worries surrounds trade with the US after President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. Wood Pellet exports from the Southeastern United States account for 26% of biomass production in the EU, which as a bloc consumes 79% of global wood pellets. These wood pellets are produced through using the excess wood in the forestry industry, thereby providing a way to convert waste into energy that is carbon-neutral over a forests lifetime.
However, the revised Renewable Energy Directive puts significant compliance costs on exports from countries that are not party to the Paris Deal. This would burden US forests, many of which are small and independently operated, harming the potential to trade with the EU, thereby driving up costs and reducing the supply of biomass energy.
Some commentators see the UK as continuing with trade with the US after Brexit as their biomass consumption grows and as their energy becomes more tied to imports from the US. In this way the UK’s energy outlook follows a continued green trajectory. If the EU is concerned with environmental sustainability, it should watch closely the emissions changes in the UK as a case study of science-based environmental policy.
In the meantime, however, EU directives have proven to not be grounded in science, but rather politics. This has led to an oversimplification of the energy industry in legislation, with potentially harmful environmental consequences in the long-run.
An example of this in the bioenergy sphere is the revision surrounding crop-based biofuels, which would reduce the contribution of these energy sources in transport from a maximum of 7% to 3.8% by 2030. This has received backlash from independent think tanks who find the impact assessment to lack the sufficient evidence for the reductions the EU has proposed. These changes are in violation of the principles of Better Regulation that are meant to be a mainstay of policy making.
Several recent scientific studies have called into doubt the generalisations made in the revisions, as ethanol is a crop-based biofuel that has very little environmental impact relative to alternatives the EU has endorsed. Similarly, the latest Eurobarometer survey on biofuels showed a 72% endorsement of the their use as alternatives to fossil fuels among Europeans.
Given the political turbulence around the world today, and the immanent importance of combatting climate change, sound policies based on scientific findings and empirical results of policies would serve the EU better in achieving sustainable emissions. Despite tensions the block presently has with the UK, it should still see the country as a partner in combatting a global threat, and acknowledge the policy achievements that have led to its sustainability improvements.
Regulators ignore these developments at their peril, and jeopardise the credibility of a legislation if it lacks strong grounding in the practical and urgent needs of the European and Global community. The Renewable Energy Directive requires serious reconsideration around its bioenergy policy, and must be more proactive in balancing the needs of environmental sustainability and economic feasibility.