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Why Europe needs to break its imported fossil fuel addiction

Source: Fri, 20 Jun 2014 11:15 GMT
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Wind turbines are seen in front of a coal power plant of German utility RWE Power near the western town of Neurathon February 28, 2014. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Europe is by far the largest importer of fossil fuel in the world. And the recent developments in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq highlight once again how vulnerable Europe's economy is to price spikes, external energy shocks and other regimes' wishes.

Like a patient hoping to get better, the drip-feed of imported fossil fuels is keeping the European economy alive, but isn't providing the remedy to spur new growth.

Just take our energy bill as an example. For years, imports of fossil fuels have weighed in negatively on the European balance of trade. Today, Europe imports more than two-thirds of all the gas and almost all the oil it consumes. And it pays more than 1 billion euros ($1.36 billion) per day for its imported fossil fuels.

Energy dependency costs, that much is clear. But how about the political costs? Just an example: six EU countries depend from Russia as single external supplier for their entire gas imports and three of them use natural gas for more than a quarter of their total energy needs.

Wouldn’t it be wise to break this dependency by saving and producing energy here in Europe? The foreign providers may freeze oil and gas supply, but they can't freeze our sun or our wind. They can't charge us for the energy we don't consume.

Our path to real energy security begins here at home. We can always dig more coal, some would argue. Would that be the solution?  Obviously not. Coal is not only the top contributor to climate change, but it is also the cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution. It is therefore against our climate policies and targets.

Energy security and climate action go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. That's why renewables and energy efficiency must be the two key ingredients: they're both good for the climate and our energy independence.

NOT SENDING MONEY TO PUTIN

The good news is that Europe is already saving 30 billion euros a year by replacing imported fossil fuels with locally produced renewable energy. In other words, we invest the money here in Europe instead of sending it to Putin's Russia.

And by 2050, the EU could halve its imports of oil and gas – representing a saving of 3 percent of today’s GDP. Much of the required additional investment expenditure can be recovered from what we save on energy costs. Money that now flows abroad can be invested in our domestic manufacturing industries and services instead.

So for Europe, energy security should not only be about the diversification of gas supply away from Russia. We must build an economy that is less dependent on imported energy through increased efficiency and greater reliance on domestically produced clean energy. We must also complete the internal energy market and upgrade our energy infrastructure.

All over the world countries and companies are turning to climate action for their growth strategies. And what countries have committed to internationally is driven to a significant extent by domestic agendas to increase energy security and competitiveness in key growth sectors.

In January, the European Commission outlined its proposals for climate and energy policies up to 2030. These include a binding emissions reduction target of 40 percent from 1990 levels and an EU-wide binding target of at least 27 percent of energy coming from renewable sources.

And on energy efficiency, doing more is the least we can do, and therefore more energy saving proposals will come next month. EU leaders have pledged to take a decision on the whole package no later than October.

And earlier this month, the US announced draft rules to curb power-plants emissions. This is the strongest action ever taken by the U.S. government to fight climate change and shows that the United States is taking climate change seriously.

And also during my recent visit to China, it was clear to me that things are moving in the right direction. We now need to see these domestic actions translated into an ambitious international commitment.

It's all about priorities. The way to greater energy independence goes through ambitious climate policies. The European Commission paved the way with the 2030 climate and energy package. By taking bold action on climate change, EU leaders will be preserving Europe's energy security and boosting a sustainable economic recovery.

Connie Hedegaard is the EU Commissioner for Climate Action.

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