To reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas the European Union created a bold REPowerEU plan intended to diversify supplies and hasten the clean energy transition beyond targets recently set by Green Deal legislation. The €210 billion plan includes diverse measures from building more gas infrastructure to development of large-scale transnational trade in hydrogen, and from doubling the rate of heat pump deployments to expediting and simplifying the permitting process for renewable energy (RE) projects. Proposed weakening of environmental assessment requirements for RE infrastructure built in “go-to” areas considered most suitable for such development provoked vocal but constructive criticism from many NGOs and experts fearing this may result in massive encroachment on protected areas and biodiversity hotspots. They argue that the biodiversity and climate crises should be addressed in a coordinated manner and there is no need to roll-back the Green Deal’s conservation commitments to achieve climate goals. Such reaction also shows that weakening conservation legislation and public participation procedures in the name of RE development may in fact further weaken public acceptance of the REPowerEU plan and delay its implementation.
REGreening the Green Deal?
According to the European Commission (EC), 85% of Europeans believe that the EU should reduce its dependency on Russian gas and oil as soon as possible to support Ukraine, thus adding urgency to the search for energy alternatives. The European Union responded in March with a promise to develop a REPowerEU initiative to kill two birds with one stone – reduce both energy trade with Russia and the EU’s dependence on fossil fuels. Given the EU’s prominent role in the global economy and politics, this could be seen as the world’s “make it or brake it” moment in eliminating fossil fuel dependency in times when progress in the energy transition is stagnating globally.
A multi-pronged ambitious plan to achieve these two objectives was announced on May 18 and consists of energy savings, diversification of energy supplies, and an accelerated rollout of renewable energy. The plan adds to the already extensive obligations of the “Fit for 55” package of the EU Green Deal legislation.
Energy savings are the most immediate way to face next winter’s challenges. The Commission proposed to increase the binding Energy Efficiency Target from 9 to 13% under the Fit for 55 package and published an “EU Save Energy Communication” urging behavioural changes which could cut gas and oil demand by 5%.
Diversification of international supplies of oil, gas, and hydrogen through the new EU Energy Platform, will enable development of a joint purchasing mechanism on behalf of participating Member States. Limited additional gas infrastructure, estimated at around €10 billion of investment, will be supported to compensate for the future loss of Russian gas imports. Many observers doubt that replacing Russian gas with gas from the US or the Persian Gulf will result in a global decrease in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
The EU External Energy Strategy seeks to achieve diversification and “greening” of energy supplies from other countries, including cooperation to help partner countries to acquire green technologies. Major hydrogen corridors will be developed with partners from northern Africa and other regions. The EU will also support Ukraine, Moldova, the Western Balkans, and Eastern Partnership countries, among others, by launching the REPowerUkraine initiative that will help ensure energy supply and rebuild the Ukrainian energy sector after the war. The EC claims that the Strategy demonstrates the EU’s commitment to the global green and just energy transition. Some activists call this plan a “neo-colonial resource grab”, arguing that partner countries in the Global South would need to sacrifice their current plans under the Paris Agreement in order for Europe to meet its goals.
The EU also plans a massive scaling-up and acceleration of renewable energy in power generation, industry, buildings, and transport to strengthen energy independence, boost the green transition, and reduce prices over time. The Commission proposes to increase the headline 2030 target for renewables from 40% to 45% under the Fit for 55 package, including such measures as:
- The EU Solar Strategy to double solar photovoltaic capacity by 2025 and install 600GW by 2030
- A Solar Rooftop Initiative with a phased-in legal obligation to install solar panels on new public and commercial buildings and new residential buildings
- Enhancing energy savings and efficiencies in the transport sector addressed in Greening of Freight Package (yet to be finalized)
- Doubling of the heat pump deployment rate
- Enabling production of 10 million metric tons of domestic renewable hydrogen and 10 million tons of imports
- A Biomethane Action Plan to increase production to 35 billion cubic meters by 2030, including through the Common Agricultural Policy
The EC believes that implementation of REPowerEU’s objectives requires an additional investment of €210 billion over the next 5 years, while cutting Russian fossil fuel imports can save the EU up to €100 billion per year.
Finally, the Commission issued a formal recommendation to expedite permitting for major renewable projects and suggested a targeted amendment to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to recognize renewable energy as an “overriding public interest.” The Commission proposes to identify “go-to areas” in all EU Member States as the most suitable places for deploying renewable energy projects. The Commission further proposes that dedicated environmental impact assessments and public consultations, as well as the “appropriate assessment” under the Habitats Directive for issuing permits for specific RE projects would no longer be required in those areas.
REPowerEU package and environmental rollback
Naturally, the plan is being widely discussed and often criticized by experts, activists, and politicians. Some say it lacks ambition and has too many vague objectives, others argue it is overambitious in many parts and lacks realism. The most concerted criticisms, however, were directed at the recommendation to streamline the permitting process.
Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe said that it welcomes the Commission’s proposal to increase the 2030 EU targets on renewable energy and energy savings. However, CAN advocates more ambitious goals to be on the safe side with regards to the Paris Agreement – 50% and 20% respectively – with measures going beyond short-term behavioural changes, enabling a full energy system change and reducing energy demand in the midterm and beyond. Moreover, acceleration in the deployment of solar and wind energy should not come at the cost of biodiversity protection nor of effective engagement of citizens and local communities. “CAN Europe’s assessment ‘RepowerForThePeople’” proves that the EU can wean off Russian gas by 2025 without funding new gas imports elsewhere. All of that additional investment should support the just energy transition to achieve it,” said CAN Europe’s Energy Policy Expert Elif Gündüzyeli.
Reacting to the proposal, ClientEarth lawyer Anna Heslop stated, “We agree that unnecessary obstacles must be removed – but Europe’s nature laws are not among them. In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, it is incomprehensible that the Commission would choose to seriously undermine the laws that protect the EU’s most valuable natural places and wildlife. The Commission knows full well that this law is also part and parcel of tackling the climate crisis. We cannot save the planet and secure our future without fighting both battles. …We are extremely disturbed about the implications of this proposal and will be considering this issue further.”
Friends of the Earth Europe are also deeply concerned that a blanket exemption on renewables from environmental impact assessments (EIAs) risks undermining what the EU has achieved and will facilitate deregulation. Eilidh Robb, anti-fossil fuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe commented: “Europe’s external energy plans throw out hollow endorsements on renewable and energy efficiency solutions, while putting forward a plethora of plans to lock us into fossil gas for decades to come under the overinflated promise of a hydrogen future.”
Sent five days before the REPowerEU announcement, a letter signed by Greenpeace and 10 leading European environmental NGOs to Frans Timmermans, European Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, stated: “Biodiversity and nature protection and restoration are as important climate tools as renewable energies: the combination of RE Strategy and nature protection is the best chance we have to achieve climate neutrality.” The NGOs argued that the EC proposal would allow a rollback of environmental regulation, ignore citizen voices by sidestepping consultation, and focus on renewables in protected areas when there are clearly so many better opportunities. Taken together, such actions will lead to major public outcry and be fundamentally counter-productive. Finally, the NGOs warn that weakening environmental regulations on behalf of renewables creates a precedent that will, in turn, risk being used tomorrow by industrial interests on raw materials and other issues.
This warning had no immediate effect, and on May 18th, the published REPowerEU proposal contained all original deregulation clauses intact.
Renewable industry associations by and large see amendments as a welcome opportunity to seize more natural areas for new development. WindEurope CEO Giles Dickson commented, “With REPowerEU’s new permitting rules and … Nature Protection Package, Member States now have a full picture of the good working balance between biodiversity and renewables expansion. They now need to implement the REPowerEU measures on the simplification of permitting.… The Energy Ministers of the 27 EU Member States meet next Monday 27 June and will have the chance to agree the changes to permitting rules the EU Commission have proposed to the Renewables Directive as part of REPowerEU. It’s a great opportunity for them to inject momentum into the simplification of permitting.”
Hydropower industry representatives, who often complain that the EU Water Framework Directive prohibiting deterioration of the ecological status of water bodies slows dam development, also see emerging opportunities to dam new rivers in Europe and elsewhere. In its 2022 State of Hydropower Report the International Hydropower Association mentions that, while introducing REPowerEU in March 2022, “the President of the European Commission emphasised the long-term need to switch to renewables, including hydropower.”
European Commission bureaucracy efforts to pave the way for deregulation largely pre-date the Russian invasion in Ukraine and are based on evidence collection and consultations started on 18 January 2022, as well as two workshops held 16-17 February 2022 exclusively for the wind and hydropower industries. However, results from these deliberations do not decisively point to a need to weaken nature conservation legislation or public participation rules to accelerate energy development.
For example, out of 155 responses in consultations (112 of those submitted by project promoters and their associations and only 9 by NGOs), 70 respondents indicated the length of administrative procedures, 62 noted grid connection issues, while only 44 marked competition with environmental regulations as among the most important barriers to RE development. Despite unequal representation of industry and conservation stakeholders in the “consultations”, the results largely support the analysis of real setbacks to RE development presented in May by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) (more below). Nevertheless the Synopsis Report from those consultations is the only “evidence-based” justification document that the EC attached to its proposal to change the Renewable Energy Directive.
It is difficult to track how and when amendments threatening the conservation objectives contained in the Green Deal were inserted into the “Amendments to Renewable Energy, Energy Performance of Buildings, and Energy Efficiency Directives” proposed on 18 May. This EC proposal document includes a dangerous disclaimer: “Due to the politically sensitive and urgent nature of the proposal, no specific impact assessment was carried out.” Given that the proposal attempts a substantive change in legislation, such an excuse can hardly be justified. Is the war being used as a smokescreen to push through prefabricated draft amendments, which in times of peace would be subjected to more thorough examination, including mandatory impacts assessment for proposed legislation on the EU’s conservation objectives?
What Should be Fixed?
The pros and cons that will result from REPowerEU and whether or not it will slow due to lack of climate justice and nature conservation safeguards depend on many variables and the future course of action that Member States will take. Some recommendations on resolving these issues have been already published by leading environmental groups.
Alex Mason, Head of Climate at the WWF European Policy Office in mid-May noted, “Shifting toward a 100% renewable energy system is essential to stopping climate change and increasing the EU’s energy independence, but the type of renewables is also critical. Members of the European Parliament must therefore strengthen the proposed law by increasing the overall target, but also stop the scandalous practice of subsidising the burning of trees and crops for energy, and end all new hydropower development in the EU.” “Speeding up permitting is a good idea and will inject new impetus to the ramp-up of wind and solar power across the EU,” he said , “But the way to do this is to fix inefficient bureaucratic procedures, not weaken environmental legislation. Indiscriminate exemptions from nature laws for renewable energy projects could harm biodiversity and stir up public opposition, causing conflicts and further delays.”
The only point to have been partially resolved after an extensive NGO campaign, burning of solid biomass to produce energy was excluded from the REPowerEU package, while a proposal to ban construction of new small hydropower is now under consideration in the EU Parliament.
Birdlife International Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia Martin Harper commented, “The new REPowerEU plan… contains much we can support but, shoots itself in the foot by introducing a blanket exemption from EIAs and appropriate assessments on #Natura2000 sites. We have work to do to shift this.” Birdlife representatives criticized the proposed top-down approach that aims to silence public opposition and suggested that a smarter engagement process is needed to address the real problems without undermining conservation efforts, public acceptance, and rule of law. Selection of go-to areas must be technology-specific, Birdlife argues. Defining go-to areas for wind and solar will also define electricity grids requirements, thus allowing for transmission capacity to be built faster. The experts note that the go-to areas approach is only relevant for wind and solar, as biomass impacts depend on feedstock more than location, and hydropower must be assessed at the river basin level.
The European Environmental Bureau stated that the REPowerEU package includes backdoor proposals to water down key environmental safeguards under the guise of fast-tracking renewable permits. 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 caused by poor planning.
The EEB issued a policy briefing highlighting the real top 10 barriers to renewable energy, including lack of skilled professionals, grid connections, and resource allocation. To scale up the deployment of solar and wind technologies, the EU would need to remove these and other bureaucratic barriers. This can and should be done through robust spatial planning (with go-to and no-go areas) and more resources for environmental authorities, not at the cost of weakening environmental legislation.
“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.
Green 10 NGOs (G10) and Euronatur insist: “The way forward has to be a positive agenda of speed and scale of deployment of solar and wind renewables, with major opportunities around improved spatial planning in go-to areas. This should be done by removing bureaucratic barriers, not weakening environmental protection legislation. The focus should be on the urban and industrial areas first and then on EU land and sea outside of protected areas.”
“Go-to” areas are important, but these must be very well defined using a democratic process. Expediting permitting procedures for wind and solar and related infrastructure can be done through better spatial planning, funding adequate staffing in competent authorities, and the early and full involvement of independent experts, citizens, and local authorities.”
G10 and Euronatur suggest the adoption of a differentiated approach to identifying areas for renewable energy development: go-to areas (most suitable ones), second choice areas to be used after space in go-to areas is exhausted, along with clear identification of the no-go areas: strictly protected areas, Natura 2000 sites, other protected areas, reserves, restoration areas, etc.
Consultation of citizens and civil society cannot be waived – otherwise the EU will lose citizen support and undermine trust and key elements for democracy. There will be a real risk of losing public support for renewable energy deployment if it comes at the cost of natural areas. Priority in both permitting and financing should be given to community-led projects, which have much higher support and prevent long and expensive court cases.
G10 environmental groups believe that rule of law and existing environmental legislation remain key and are not an obstacle to progress. The existing environmental legislation must continue to apply – fully and in all areas.
The UWEC Work Group will monitor how this collision unfolds in the EU and will also explore the war’s impacts on renewable energy deployment and permitting procedures in other parts of the world.