One of the priorities of the European Union (EU) is the creation of a resilient Energy Union with a forward‑looking climate policy that is capable of delivering the adopted 2020 and 2030 climate and energy targets and the EU’s longer-term climate objectives. To achieve this, Europe has to decarbonise its energy supply, integrate the fragmented national energy markets into a smooth functioning and coherent European system, and set up a framework that allows the effective coordination of national efforts. With fossil fuels accounting for roughly three‑quarters of the EU’s gross inland energy consumption (GIEC) in 2013, much remains to be done to achieve the envisaged transformation of the energy sector.
The energy sector transformation is not a utopia, but a new economic system which is environmentally and humanly sustainable.
For the transition to a more secure, affordable and decarbonised energy system, the EU adopted climate and energy targets for 2020 and 2030, together with a long-term goal, so to reduce EU-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80–95 % below 1990 levels by 2050 (European Council, 2009). Meeting these objectives will require switching to low-carbon energy sources and mastering our energy demand through energy and resource efficiency improvements and through lifestyle changes.
Renewable energy sources (RES) are already a main contributor to this energy transition. Compared with fossil fuel alternatives they have a high GHG mitigation potential, as well as lower health and environment impacts. Increasing the use of renewables during the coming years will bring considerable benefits in terms of green jobs and growth. This could well prove decisive as Europe strives to become a sustainable, low-carbon economy by 2050.
The EU-wide share of renewable energy in final EU energy use has increased from 14.3 % in 2012 to 15.0 % in 2013. The European Environmental Agency (EEA) approximated RES estimate for 2014 – as calculated in August 2015 – indicates that the EU RES share continued to grow, reaching 15.2 % in 2014. Recent information from Eurostat confirms this growth and illustrates that the actual EU-wide RES share grew even stronger than anticipated by the EEA, reaching 16.0 % in 2014. This progress enabled the EU to be on track with the indicative trajectory in the Renewable Energy Directive, as well as with the expected trajectory from the National Renewable Energy Action Plans (NREAPs) adopted by countries.
At Member State level the RES shares vary widely, ranging from over 30 % of gross final energy consumption in countries such as Finland, Latvia and Sweden, to less than 5 % in Luxembourg (3.6 %), Malta (3.8 %) and the Netherlands (4.5 %). In 11 countries, renewable energy consumption in 2013 was below what was expected in their NREAPs. Almost half of all countries will need to increase their growth rate post‑2013 to reach the expectations for 2020 as set out in their NREAPs.
The increased consumption of renewable energy sources, compared to the level of consumption in 2005, allowed the EU to cut its demand for fossil fuels by 110 Mtoe in 2013 (equivalent to almost one tenth of all fossil fuels used across the EU in 2013, and comparable to the fossil fuel consumption of France in that year), and by an estimated 114 Mtoe in 2014 respectively. Coal was the fuel most substituted by renewables across Europe in 2013 and 2014 (roughly 45 % of all avoided fossil fuels), followed by natural gas (roughly 29 % of all avoided fossil fuels). The latter is particularly relevant in the context of declining EU gas resources and increasing geopolitical risks. The reduction of petroleum products and related fuels was less pronounced due to the lesser share of renewable energy use in the transport sector.
The growth in the consumption of renewable energy after 2005 helped the EU achieve an estimated gross reduction of CO2 emissions of 362 Mt in 2013 and 380 Mt in 2014 – an amount that is equivalent to the yearly GHG emissions of Poland. Three quarters of these effects have taken place in energy-intensive industrial sectors under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), where the increase in renewable electricity decreased the need for the most carbon‑intensive fossil fuels. Overall, the gross avoided CO2 emissions corresponded to a 7 % reduction in total EU GHG emissions in 2013, increasing to an estimated 9 % in 2014.
In absolute terms, Germany, Italy and Spain achieved the largest reduction in domestic fossil fuel use and avoided GHG emissions, as a result of national RES deployment since 2005. In relative terms, Sweden, Denmark and Austria substituted the most fossil fuels and were able to avoid the most GHGs in proportion to their total domestic fossil fuels use and their national GHG emissions.
The EU has contributed significantly to the worldwide demonstration and commercialisation of progressive renewable energy technologies such as solar PV and wind power. In 2014, the EU-28 had the largest installed and connected solar PV capacity in the world (three times more than China) and the largest wind power capacity globally. The pace of development of these technologies has picked up since 2010 also in other parts of the world.
Since 2005 the EU has led the way in funding the development of RES. During the period 2005–2012 Europe recorded the highest share in total new global investments in RES, surpassed only by China since 2013. Europe’s share of investments in renewable energy fluctuated between 40–50 % until 2011, highlighting its pioneering role in encouraging the growth of renewable energy technologies globally. RES also lead to new job opportunities. Indeed, the EU is one of the key global players with regard to employment in the renewable energy sector. In 2014, it had the second highest per-capita employment in the area of renewable energy behind Brazil. The largest employers in the EU renewables sector are the wind, solar PV and solid biomass industries. Over the past five years, job losses were experienced in the solar PV industry and in the wind power sector, as competition from China continued to grow. Nonetheless, renewable energy related jobs per person in the workforce in the EU-28 remain, to date, larger than in China.
Greener and better jobs for a sustainable Europe could be our motto in the new incoming economic era.