Reasoned Approaches to Energy Policy
Two optimistic pieces of news regarding energy policy emerged from Europe in the last week or so. One of them was a European Union decision that scrapped binding renewable energy targets for the future. The other was a report that the Swiss public recognizes the contribution nuclear power makes to their energy security and that they want a say in decisions about the future of nuclear energy in Switzerland.
The EU decision was a major breakthrough. Targets for 2020, previously established, known as the "20-20-20" targets, set three key objectives for 2020:
- A 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels;
- Raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%;
- A 20% improvement in the EU's energy efficiency.
The 2020 targets will still stand. The hotly debated issue in this round was how to set the targets for 2030 and beyond. Countries like Germany and Italy were pushing for further individual targets for renewable energy sources, while countries like the United Kingdom pushed for more flexibility. It appears that the arguments for flexibility won the day this time around. The European Commission set a 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target of 40% over 1990 levels. There is also an EU-wide target of 27% of energy consumption from renewable sources--BUT, there are no individual national target commitments. Instead, each nation retains the flexibility to do what makes most sense in that country.
Although here are further steps ahead in finalizing this new plan, this is a major step and a significant change in policy from the past. It removes the discrimination for and against specific energy technologies, and allows each country to chose a mix that best suits their needs based on their climate, population density, indigenous sources, and other factors. This is a welcome change in direction.
The news from Switzerland also represents a step forward in having rational discussions on energy supply and demand. In a series of questions on nuclear power in Switzerland, a majority of the respondents said that Switzerland's nuclear power plants were essential in meeting the country's energy demand, that the reactors should remain in operation, that the population does not want to be dependent on other countries for its energy supply, that the existing mix of energy sources should be retained in the immediate future, and that they want to be able to vote on Switzerland's future nuclear energy policy. In most of these cases, the percent favorable response has gone up since the last such survey.
This again appears to be at least somewhat of a break with past policy--the current plan in Switzerland is to phase out nuclear power by not replacing the current reactors with new nuclear power plants as they are retired--and a recognition that a nation's energy supply must consider a complex set of interacting factors. In the case of Switzerland, energy independence and security were highlighted.
While it is far too soon to project what further developments will follow the EU decision or the Swiss survey, and what the ultimate result will be on the mix of energy sources, it is a welcome breath of fresh air to see the dialogue shifting from a preordained solution to one where energy supply decisions take into account the unique circumstances of each country and all the complex considerations that affect, or are affected by, a nation's energy choices.