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Mapping a faster route to zero emissions in Europe

A new clean energy scenario shows that the EU can achieve climate neutrality by 2040 – a decade before the 2050 target – raising hopes for the fight against the climate crisis.

 An energy system relying entirely on renewable energy is within Europe’s reach, according to a new analysis led by Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

Report: Building a Paris Agreement Compatible (PAC) energy scenario

The scenario is the first-ever to be developed by civil society organisations in cooperation with grid operators, industry representatives, economists, and researchers. It finds that the European Union can achieve climate neutrality by 2040 – 10 years earlier than agreed by governments and institutions. It also finds that the bloc can cut emissions by 65% through 2030, as opposed to the current EU target of 40%.

The report outlines projections about future energy demand and supply across the EU and the UK, paving the way for an energy outlook compatible with the goal of limiting global warming to 2°C as agreed under the Paris Agreement.

Speaking at a virtual event organised for the launch of the report, the EEB’s EU policy director Patrick ten Brink said that the report “provides a roadmap for a healthier future and a more resilient economy based on clean energy and the principles of sustainability.”

“We have the technology and the resources” needed to step up the clean energy transition, said Wendel Trio, the Director of CAN Europe. “Now is the moment for Europe to take transformational action,” he told reporters.

The report comes as EU institutions and governments are putting forward unprecedented plans to fund a green recovery for a post-coronavirus Europe. The authors have called on policymakers to shift investments away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy infrastructure, energy and resource efficiency, and sustainable business practices.

Earlier this year, the governments of Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Spain called on the European Commission to include a 100% renewable energy scenario in long-term climate projections.

Supply and demand in the energy system of tomorrow

Energy savings alone could halve the EU’s energy demand by 2040, according to the scenario. This would be mainly due to deep renovation and insulation of Europe’s ageing homes and offices, increased efficiency of vehicles in transport, modernisation of industrial production processes, energy efficiency gains in home appliances and a reduction in demand for raw materials through waste prevention, reusing and recycling.

Final energy demand per sector | EU-28 TWh – Total

At the same time, both renewable electricity generation and demand are set to increase in the next decade. From sun and wind power to green hydrogen, renewables could account for 50% of the EU’s final energy consumption in 2030 and 100% in 2040.

The share of renewable energy in the EU accounted for 18% of the bloc’s final energy consumption in 2018, although upcoming investments and recent trends suggest the future may be brighter.

Nonetheless, the targets outlined in the report can be achieved only if policymakers lay out a timeline to phase out fossil fuels, the researchers clarified. Europe will have to phase out coal by 2030, fossil gas by 2035 and oil products by 2040. The scenario also excludes the lifetime extension of nuclear power beyond 2040, citing increasing costs of maintenance and fuel chain as incentives for earlier retirements.

Final energy demand per energy source | EU-28 TWh – Total

The hydrogen revolution?

The scenario takes into account growing demand for hydrogen, a much-discussed form of gas which can be produced either sustainably using renewable electricity – a process known as electrolysis – or through fracking for fossil gas.

According to Jonathan Bonadio, an energy expert at the EEB and one of the authors of the report, only renewable hydrogen – known as ‘green’ hydrogen – can bring about climate benefits. Focussing on the expansion of non-renewable hydrogen and its infrastructure now risks locking Europe into burning fossil gas for generations, he said.

Bonadio foresees that Europe will be able to produce enough renewable electricity to expand the production of clean hydrogen, which is currently expensive and not widely available. But he warned that its deployment must be carefully planned, giving priority access to energy intensive sectors such as the steel industry as well as the shipping and aviation sectors.

“For efficiency reasons, neither renewable hydrogen nor synthetic methane should be introduced for heating in buildings,” he said.

The discussions about the future of hydrogen are set to take the centre stage of EU energy policy in the summer, with the European Commission expected to publish its first-ever hydrogen strategy on 8 July.

Last week, some of the world’s biggest polluters – including Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies – created a stir when they wrote to the Commission asking to include more support to non-renewable hydrogen in their upcoming strategy.