With the Paris climate change negotiations underway, nations from all around the world are pledging greenhouse gas emissions cuts. The European Union has announced its goal of cutting emissions from 1990 levels by at least 40% by 2030, and by at least 80% by 2050.
An 80% cut in emissions will be challenging for any sector, and some, like aviation or shipping for example, are going to find it especially tough. Meeting this target will therefore mean some sectors taking on a much larger share of the burden than others.
With 100% renewable energy production technically feasible, electricity generation is one sector that will have to become almost completely decarbonised.
This will be a significant challenge. Yes, we’re making progress: renewable energy in 2014 made up more than 15% of final energy use across the EU. But even with energy efficiency measures, demand for electricity is likely to grow due to the electrification of transport and heating, making the goalposts ever wider.
To achieve complete decarbonisation of electricity generation, there are five things Europe needs to get right:
Make long-term plans across Europe
It’s difficult for national politicians to plan for the long-term when election cycles are on a five year basis, but long-term thinking is essential to get the best energy mix at the best price. This is exactly the area in which the European Commission should be taking a lead. The 202020 target (20% renewable energy from all European countries by 2020) has made a big difference. But more long term planning is needed about how we will incentivise the right infrastructure, especially for energy storage and electricity grid integration.
Typically, costs come down as the maturity and adoption of renewable technology increases, so some argue that holding back a little now means that we can eventually do more.
Take Germany: the country has incentivised solar power, creating 38.5 GW of installed capacity (nearly 7% of its total energy mix), but this has come at a cost; solar PV investment costs have fallen by almost 75% since Germany started investing heavily in 2006.
The UK government has also been criticised for getting the delicate balance between ambition and economics wrong. In 2010, the government announced a target to increase offshore wind capacity from 1.3 GW to 18 GW by 2020. The Committee on Climate Change, usually supportive of such admirable ambitions, suggested the UK risked investing too much, too soon.
It’s never going to be clear when is the best time to invest to make sure we get the biggest bang for our buck, but to ensure we benefit from cleantech jobs and the decreasing costs of renewables, we need to pace ourselves.
Entrepreneurs are often hailed as the driving force behind the economy and it’s probably true: a World Economic Forum study back in 2011 found that just 1% of start-ups create 40% of new jobs.
Creating entrepreneurs will be critical to meeting our renewable targets, but in Europe we’re not brilliant at educating or supporting them. Our friends over the Atlantic have a different attitude to failure and are therefore much more prepared to ‘give it a shot’.
Whilst no one institution can change European culture, what we can do is make our university degrees more cross-disciplinary, encourage students to have ideas, and replace internships with placements in small companies. We can ensure public procurement is set up to enable, rather than avoid, purchasing from start-ups or taking on new ideas. And we can centralise funding for SMEs so they can spend their time running their businesses rather than applying for incubation programmes and scraps of funding from several agencies at once.
Make certification schemes responsive
Europe has great standards regimes, but we need to move faster. Innovative products are often held back by certification schemes designed around more traditional technologies.
Take silicon-PV for example. It has traditionally dominated the solar market, and as such, the certification scheme (which involves shining a bright light on a solar cell and measuring the power output) is great for comparing one silicon-PV cell to another.
However, newer technology, such as organic PV, works better in diffuse light, so in tests the new technology doesn’t look great. It’s a real shame: the technology has the potential to be cost-effective in gloomier areas with less direct sunshine – useful for the northern European climate.
There are glimmers of hope – like the EU’s Environmental Technology Verification programme which uses bespoke testing to verify performance claims so SMEs can prove to customers and investors that their technology works. But with the ever-quickening pace of innovation, we need to make all certification schemes more responsive.
Properly engage with the public
Arguably the biggest influencing factor in politics is public opinion. If the public become convinced of the need for decarbonisation, the transition would be a whole lot easier.
We need to change the narrative. No more ad campaigns about polar bears. Just a grown up conversation about alternatives, about how if you don’t want a wind turbine down the road then you can pay a lot more to stick it in the sea or you can carry on burning fossil fuels and have your kids and their kids suffer the consequences.
With COP21 now happening, Europe has already shown its commitment to cut greenhouse emissions. Whilst our targets are ambitious, they are also achievable if we tackle these five steps and plan ahead, stick to our vision and nurture entrepreneurialism, certification and public opinion.
Author: Jane Burston, Head of Climate and Environment at the National Physical Laboratory, Young Global Leader
Image: Fences and fields are covered with frost near the A6 highway, also known as the “Autoroute du Soleil (Highway of the Sun) near Dijon, France January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman