Europe's low-carbon energy plan

10 January 2007

The European Commission has published a Green Paper on energy backed up by a report that suggests carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced to 80% of 1990 levels by 2020. At the heart of policy would be nuclear, renewables and efficiency.

The report, World Energy Technology Outlook – 2050, foresees that European Union (EU) energy imports may reach 65% by 2030, with 93% of oil being imported as the price of that commodity reaches $110 per barrel. On that backdrop, it predicts low-carbon generation should provide over 50% of electricity supply by 2050. Renewables could provide up to 20%, while nuclear would provide at least 20%, with over 30% more likely as the continent sees a "rapid deployment of new energy technologies, from large offshore wind farms to Generation-IV nuclear power plants" after 2020-30.

However, a carbon-constraint policy scenario would see nuclear and renewables generate over 75% of electricity, giving most of the required 20% carbon emissions cut. The rest would come from fossil power plants, half of them employing carbon capture and storage.

Beyond about 2030, the report's hydrogen scenario postulates that the fuel could enter widespread use in transport, and grow to provide 13% of final energy consumption by 2050. The reference scenario however is less optimistic, putting hydrogen use at about 2% of consumption.

EU officials hope that following through on policies made to realise the report's ambitions would put Europe at the forefront of research into low-carbon energy.

Achieving the potentials described above would be a difficult political task, requiring an integrated energy and climate policy package. José Manuel Barroso, the EC President, said: "The challenges of climate change, increasing import dependence and higher energy prices are faced by all EU members. A common European response is necessary to deliver sustainable, secure and competitive energy. The proposals put forward by the Commission demonstrate our commitment to leadership and a long-term vision for a new energy policy for Europe that responds to climate change."

The three pillars supporting the EU proposals are:

  • The creation of a true internal energy maket
  • A shift to low-carbon energy
  • Energy efficiency

Some of the first measures to be taken would address the first point: The EU has set a target of 10% minimum interconnection between national energy grids. Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs hopes that more regulation at the European level would allow powerful companies to challenge their counterparts in neighbouring countries, also increasing competition.

Piebalgs also intends to 'unbundle' integrated companies, separating their generating components from those that transmit and distribute the power over national electricity grids. Projects in the 'European interest' could benefit from five-year limits on planning approval while coordinators could be appointed to oversee the construction of cross-border infrastructure like gas pipelines and electricity pylons.

On nuclear in the low-carbon mix, an EC statement read: "At present, nuclear electricity makes up 14% of EU energy consumption and 30% of EU electricity. The Commission proposals underline that it is for each member state to decide whether or not to rely on nuclear electricity. The Commission recommends that where the level of nuclear energy reduces in the EU this must be offset by the introduction of other low-carbon energy sources otherwise the objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions will become even more challenging. "

Before leaving to discuss the plan with US President George Bush at the White House, Barroso said: "The economic case for taking action to manage climate change is beyond dispute. In this area we have much to gain despite our differences."

Further information:

World Energy Technology Outlook 2050
European Commission: Energy