One of these days, a new European Commission will be installed. The European Commission is the executive arm of the European Union, responsible for developing strategies and proposing European legislation. Head of the new commission is Ursula von der Leyen and her first deputy will be Frans Timmermans. The first responsibility of Mr. Timmermans will be Climate Action, just one sign that this topic is top priority for the new Commission.

So, this is a good moment to explore where the European Union is heading. Nearly a year ago, the current European Commission presented a long-term strategy, called ‘A Clean Planet for All’. A key element in this strategy is the proposal to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. This means that any remaining emissions should be compensated by carbon removal, see the following graph that is central in the strategy document.

Development of greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union under a scenario leading to climate-neutrality in 2050.
Source: A Clean Planet for All, European Commission, 28 November 2018, COM(2018) 773 final.

How would this be achieved? The Commission comes with a list of actions that would lead to the required outcome (all wording literally from the strategy document, bold lettering by me):

  1. Maximise the benefits from Energy Efficiency including zero emission buildings
  2. Maximise the deployment of renewables and the use of electricity to fully decarbonise Europe’s energy supply
  3. Embrace clean, safe and connected mobility
  4. A competitive EU industry and the circular economy as a key enabler to reduce greenhouse gas emisssions
  5. Develop an adequate smart network infrastructure and inter-connections
  6. Reap the full benefits of bio-economy and create essential carbon sinks
  7. Tackling remaining CO2 emissions with carbon capture and storage

This seems to not just be a listing in random order, but a clear priority list. Energy efficiency is listed first and spelled with capitals in the original document; and carbon capture and storage seems to be a last resort for any remaining CO2 emissions. It is also visible in the choice of primary energy carriers. Bio-energy definitely plays an important role. However, in final energy use, the increase of the use of bio-energy is modest in absolute terms: it ranges from 8 – 13% [1]. This is in stark contrast with what we commonly observe in deep greenhouse gas mitigation scenarios. See, for example, the Special Report on 1.5 °C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Here, bio-energy is the dominant energy carrier outside the power sector, together with fossil fuels combined with carbon-capture-and-storage [2]. Instead, the European Commission puts more emphasis on hydrogen and other synthetic fuels, based on electricity from solar and wind resources (more on the role of hydrogen in a follow-up blog).

This all represents a strong interest in what is politically feasible. In an earlier blog post, I made the point that in defining long-term climate strategy, cost-optimization shouldn’t be the only consideration. Instead, I made the case for defining a socio-political merit order: some options, some technologies are clearly preferred above others, by citizens, by companies, and also by policy makers. Cost-effectiveness is an issue of course, but other considerations are:

  • environmental impacts
  • employment and local economics
  • inertia
  • perceived risks and trust
  • cognitive biases
  • legislation and implementation hassle
  • and last, but not least, the X-factor of certain technologies

To give an indication of what the political merit order could look like, it is useful to look at survey outcomes, see the following graph.

Overview of results from surveys of preferences of the general public on the choice of energy carriers (to the left of the dashed line, note that fossil options are omitted) and the choice of greenhouse gas mitigation options (to the right of the dashed line). For details of the survey questions, see the Ecofys/Navigant white paper on this topic [3].

Survey outcomes differ from country-to-country,  and the preferences of the general public are not necessarily the same as those of policy makers and other decision makers. But the surveys point in a clear direction: energy efficiency, solar and wind rank high, carbon-capture and storage rank low, and bio-energy is somewhere in between. The new EU strategy seems to follow that order, and therefore has chosen a pathway that is probably optimised for social acceptability and hence feasibility.

Now, what will happen to the new strategy? It was discussed in June by the leaders of the countries of the European Union, and it was not unanimously accepted: a few member states had strong reservations about the overall ambition, not so much about the seven strategic building blocks. But given the strong wording used by Mrs. Von der Leyen [4], the discussion is not closed. Let’s see what the new Commission will deliver.

[1] Derived from Figure 20 in the In-Depth Analysis in Support of the Commission Communication COM(2018) 773 “A Clean Planet for All” , European Commission, 2018.

[2] See Section and especially Figure 2.15 in Chapter 2 of the IPCC Special Report “Global Warming of 1.5 °C”: Rogelj, J., D. Shindell, K. Jiang, S. Fifita, P. Forster, V. Ginzburg, C. Handa, H. Kheshgi, S. Kobayashi, E. Kriegler, L. Mundaca, R. Séférian, and M.V. Vilariño, 2018: Mitigation Pathways Compatible with 1.5°C in the Context of Sustainable Development.

[3] K. Blok: The socio-political merit order – Developing energy strategies that can be rapidly deployed , Ecofys – A Navigant company, 2018.

[4] See for example the “Mission Letter” to Mr. Timmermans. 10 September 2019.