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REPowerEU paves the way for renewables but also undermines environmental legislation

The plan to wean the EU off Russian fossil fuels presented today by the European Commission set a promising agenda for renewables that, unfortunately, is overshadowed by further investments in gas infrastructure and the roll-back of environmental regulation to ease solar and wind permitting.

In response to Russia’s military aggression on Ukraine, EU leaders have finally decided to put their foot on the accelerator of the energy transition through the REPowerEU strategy.

Unveiled today and endowed with €195 billion, the plan aims to stop importing Russian fossil fuels by 2027 focusing on three strategies: scaling up renewables, mobilising energy savings and diversifying energy sources.

The plan includes an increase in both EU’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy targets of the FitFor55 package, which was one of the main demands from civil society organisations when Russia’s military aggression started. Yet those targets are still falling short of the needed ambition to keep the Paris Agreement’s climate goal alive: a 50% increase in renewables and 45% in energy efficiency by 2030.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), the largest European network of green NGOs, welcomes the unprecedented boost in renewables envisaged in the plan. Deploying millions of solar panels and heat pumps, coupled with building renovation and energy efficiency measures, take us one step closer to being on track with our Paris Agreement Commitment and are our best tools to isolate Putin’s regime.

“Stepping up solar and wind power, energy efficiency and heat pumps is the right way forward to replace the EU’s reliance on Russian gas. We celebrate the historic push for clean energy outlined in the RePowerEU, but we also look with great concern at the emphasis put on new gas routes. The EU should be wary of creating more fossil fuel dependencies from autocratic regimes or climate-wrecking fracking projects”, said Patrick ten Brink, Deputy Secretary-General of the EEB.

While joint procurement and other short-term market measures can be understood in the context of the geopolitical crisis, diversifying energy sources, as it reads in the communication, would simply replace Russian fossil fuels with other fossil fuels, leading to further dependencies and CO2 lock-ins. Moreover, the European Commission has put the focus on switching to Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), which can be much more carbon-intensive than Russian gas if we consider the overall emissions of shipping and regasification.

Furthermore, it is welcoming to see references to social justice and equality, although much more attention and specific measures should be addressed to empower vulnerable groups in this fast-pace energy transition, particularly women and children.

The solar wave

“We praise the target and the obligation of solar on new roofs. But new buildings are the exception, not the rule. We need to quickly solarise the existing ones and hence EEB calls on the co-legislators to introduce a ‘consent by silence policy’ across the EU for those who want to install solar on their roofs. This would be the best guarantee to prioritise rooftop, distributed solar over more disputed solutions”, said Davide Sabbadin, policy officer for energy and circular economy at the EEB.

Heritage buildings and historical centres, of course, would be exempted from any simplified solar permitting procedure, he added. Batteries, solar thermal and smart technologies should equally be promoted together with photovoltaic energy in order to ease the installation in rural areas where grids are weaker. 

Heating priority

The communication includes a relevant commitment to strengthen ecodesign policies on heating technology by setting a phase-out for fossil-only technologies by 2029. We salute this as a victory as this is a core request of our long-lasting Coolproducts campaign for many years now. Nevertheless, the timing is very different from what has been recently adopted in Member States like Germany and Netherlands

“This is too much of a time-distant proposal to have a real effect on the coming years. Not only had International Energy Agency already suggested 2025 as the latest possible date for such a phase-out, but maths clearly indicates that gas boilers installed in 2029 will still be burning fossil gas up to 2050. Being heating the largest gas market, this delay is undermining our climate neutrality and energy independence goals”, added Sabbadin.

Environmental deregulation

Under the guise of fast-tracking renewable permits, today’s package includes proposals to water down key environmental safeguards through the backdoor. The European Commission proposes a blanket exemption from the evaluations set in the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and the Birds and Habitats Directives for renewable projects in ‘go-to’ areas that will be exclusively defined by Member States. This risks severe harmful effects to nature as a result of bad planning.

“Environmental legislation is not an obstacle to the deployment of renewables. In the midst of the biodiversity crisis, there is no justification to scrap key environmental assessments and set a dangerous precedent. Permit applications can be accelerated with more staff capacity, streamlined approaches and real public participation, without undermining fundamental nature and biodiversity safeguards”, said Laura Hildt, policy officer for biodiversity at the EEB.

The EEB has analysed the top 10 problems for renewables deployment in Europe and none of them relates to nature protection. This roll-back of environmental regulation is unjustifiable from any point of view and puts the European Green Deal at stake.

On top of this regression, declaring that all renewables are of ‘overriding public interest’ to circumvent environmental mechanisms and safeguards sets a dangerous precedent for other developments. This can be similarly used in the future to water down existing legislation/procedures when it comes to raw material or other issues.

ENDS

Notes to the editor