European Union moves to strengthen renewable-energy goals

European Parliament says that 35% of energy should be clean by 2030 — but target is not yet legally binding.
Wind turbine during inauguration, France 2017.

An offshore wind turbine in France.Credit: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images

European lawmakers have backed measures that would substantially raise the European Union’s clean-energy ambitions. By 2030, more than one-third of energy consumed in the EU should be from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, the European Parliament says — up from the existing target of just over one-quarter. But the decision is not yet legally binding: the Parliament will now need to negotiate the plan with national governments, which could attempt to lower the targets.

The measures are intended to help the bloc cut its carbon dioxide emissions. The EU is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States, releasing about 10% of global emissions. EU governments had agreed in 2016 — in response to the Paris climate agreement — to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, relative to 1990 levels. That target remains in place.

Last month, to help reach that goal, member states voted to ensure that by 2030, 27% of all energy demand — and half of electricity demand — should come from wind, solar and biomass, but not nuclear. That is a legally binding target. But some members of the Parliament’s expert committee on industry, research and energy felt that goal did not go far enough. They had previously suggested that renewables should make up at least 35% of the EU’s energy mix by 2030. The European Parliament voted in favour of that goal on 17 January.

“The increased policy ambition is welcome news,” says Glen Peters, a climate-policy specialist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. But neither the current binding agreement nor the new draft measures say explicitly by how much they would cut greenhouse gases. So they give no guarantee that the EU will reach its 2030 emissions target, says Peters. “Only the passage of time will reveal if the combination of interacting policies is effective at reducing emissions sufficiently.”

Short-term progress

The EU also has a shorter-term renewables target: getting 20% of energy from clean sources by 2020. That target remains unchanged — and the EU seems to be on track to meet it. The share of energy from renewable sources has already doubled since 2004, to about 17% of final energy consumption (including from heating and transport).

In some EU countries, clean energy is already becoming dominant: Sweden meets just over 50% of its energy demand with renewables, and Finland about 40%. Others, such as Germany, are making plans to aggressively expand renewable capacity over the coming decades. But some countries, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, are still lagging behind.

Critics say that raising renewable-energy targets might prompt countries to produce more electricity by burning biomass, which could have adverse environmental effects and would release carbon emissions.

Scientists, in particular, are concerned about forest biomass — which involves cutting down living trees and burning them for bioenergy, releasing carbon that would otherwise stay locked up. More than 700 scientists had written to the Parliament last week urging them to ban the practice. But the draft law doesn’t suggest an outright ban — it says only that “priority” should be given to burning wood wastes and residues.

“Enabling the combustion of roundwood [full trees] for energy production creates a climate-harming carbon debt for decades to come,” says Felix Creutzig, a land-use specialist at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin. “That is a conceptual error that runs counter the climate-mitigation goals of Europe’s renewable-energy plans.”

The draft law would, however, ban palm oil — which is widely blamed for driving deforestation — from use in biofuels after 2021. The move drew protests from Malaysia, a major exporter of the product to Europe, in the lead up to the vote.

The Parliament also voted to increase the EU's energy-efficiency targets and to make them legally binding. Under the current energy plan, member states need to achieve 30% energy efficiency in buildings and consumer goods after 2021; the Parliament has now suggested that they achieve 35% efficiency by that time.

Update 18 January: This story has been updated with further comment and details.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up