Rebecca Harms, the president of The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, has commented on the Energy Union project proposed by by the then Prime Minister Donald Tusk. In an interview with EurActiv Poland, she introduces a green perspective into the discourse on the project and ponders on its impact on Eastern neighbours as well as climate change.
The interview was conducted by EurActiv Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska at the Annual General Meeting of the Young Polish International Network (YPIN) that took place on May 29-31 in Krakow’s Przegorzały Castle. Editing by Krzysztof Kokoszczyński.
How do you perceive the Energy Union project, which was initially proposed by Donald Tusk when he was Prime Minister for Poland?
The concept of a European Energy Union is not new, yet the recent conflict with Russia gave it a new impetus. Russia conducts power politics based on its energy resources. Hence for very good reason the current proposal focuses on energy security and the diversification of supply sources.
Yet, we will only be able to overcome our current dependency on Russia and other countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran, if we reduce our energy consumption. Look for example at gas consumption: If we improve heating and thermal efficiency, our gas consumption would be enormously reduced. This is a low-hanging fruit, ready to be picked!
Tusk’s proposal for the Energy Union also includes plans to improve energy efficiency.
He did well by including energy efficiency in his proposal. But it is weak in terms of the details on how to really improve energy efficiency.
Tusk should take global warming more seriously. Increasing both energy efficiency and the share of renewables would make an enormous contribution to the fight against climate change.
Yet, the proposed Energy Union envisions new pipelines and new LNG terminals. This would improve the ways in which the EU can get natural gas, but the only way to really reduce our energy dependency on states such as Russia is to decrease our energy consumption and to complete the shift towards renewables.
To improve efficiency, you first need the supplies…
Not all of the EU countries are 100% dependent on gas imports. Some of them have more problems than others – so providing them with alternative sources is a good idea.
But other than that, it is high time to invest in energy saving and a comprehensive energy strategy. All experts agree that improving energy efficiency is the biggest source of energy we have, but nobody is going for it!
Not only does reducing consumption protect the climate, it also allows countries to save money, which then can be invested in job creation. The European Commission says that improving energy efficiency can mean millions of new jobs.
So why is energy efficiency not being pushed further?
Many people, like Tusk for example, are set in their way of thinking. They think only in terms of diversifying, increasing supplies and production.
I am convinced that this is a big mistake. This way of thinking leads to increasing risks for energy systems rather than decreasing it.
Poland is currently in the process of preparing a new energy policy, which includes nuclear. I know your political career started from the anti-nuclear movement in 1975, so what are your current views on this and Poland’s decision to move in that direction?
I am still part of this movement and consider myself as an anti-nuclear activist, especially considering that the German government has decided to store most of German nuclear waste near my village.
For Poland it would be crazy to choose the long, risky, and expensive road of atomic energy instead of having the future in mind and going for renewable technology. It is "old men’s" thinking.
One of the main arguments against nuclear technology is the waste storage problem. I think that Tusk and other leaders in the whole world do not pay enough attention to it. 30 countries currently produce nuclear energy, but even 50-60 years later none of them has found a sustainable and safe solution for the spent nuclear fuel.
I went to Chernobyl in 1988 and I wrote the report for the European Parliament on its impact on Western Europe (I was a parliamentary assistant at that time). The risks of an accident are too high compared to costs.
Additionally, even without the risk of a meltdown, the costs are still far too high compared to other power sources. If you look at the planned nuclear power plant in Hinkley Point (UK), the investors want to have a guaranteed price for their energy that is higher than energy produced in German on-shore wind power plants today – and the earliest time at which Hinkley Point will be able to sell energy is in ten to 15 years. At that time, wind energy, given the current rate of technological development, will be even cheaper than it is today.
So, to sum up: nuclear energy is completely inefficient. One has to invest a lot – especially in a country like Poland, where you have no existing infrastructure and legislation – for an energy source that will become available only ten to 15 years after the investment starts.
By contrast the technology for renewables is there already. You also have it in Poland, so you would not need to wait more than a decade for a first kilowatt of energy to be produced, you would also not need to make heavy investments in new infrastructure and new legislation.
You are saying that the nuclear technology is “old men’s thinking” but Tusk, who began the nuclear programme in Poland in earnest, is not so old. And let’s not forget other European leaders who supported his thinking.
There are more tensions on these issues within the EU than it seems from the outside.
Yet, it is true that there are very powerful lobbies and vested interests that influence what happens in Brussels. There is, for example, Areva, a French energy company, which builds nuclear reactors in France, in Finland, and they want to get into the UK as well.
Have they not been recently bought by EDF?
Yes, exactly – they had financial problems and EDF, a state company, bought them. So now, effectively, the French citizens are building nuclear reactors.
What does that say about the economic side of the nuclear energy industry?
Economically, the nuclear energy business is also catastrophic. Lobbyists, instead of admitting the sad state of their companies, try to make the taxpayers cover the costs.
Going back to the Energy Union, the commissioner responsible for it, Maroš Šefčovič, is on a European tour to promote the idea before it is debated during the June European Summit (25-26 June). How do you judge the current project of the Energy Union?
It has to be stressed that it is still being negotiated. It is not the final version. Still, I find it a poor project, to be honest. It is more of the same thing we have now.
In addition to my critiques of relying on nuclear and fossil fuels, which we have discussed, it still does not develop the idea of how to actually get rid of the EU’s dependency on outside energy suppliers. The energy mix is still completely in the hands of the member states. Hence, nothing will change.
First of all, people must understand it is not an energy UNION project, as the main decisions are not taken in Brussels but in the capitals. Even the common negotiation of contracts will not come under it.
But they wanted to have common negotiations.
Yes, but some countries, for example Germany, do not want such a change. It would seem that every EU country has a blind spot when it comes to the Energy Union. For Poland it is a tendency to rely on fossil and nuclear energy, for Germany it is the lack of willingness to resign from their own negotiation strategy. They do not agree what the energy union should entail. It makes the whole project very weak.
Who then leads the drive for a true Energy Union?
Šefčovič tries. But he tabled a very weak proposal – so he is not really trying to change the status quo. I cannot change it myself – I can only say what I see.
And what about the European Parliament? Traditionally it has proven to be more environmentally aware than the European Council.
There are many players there. Many of them are like Tusk, people of the past lacking future-oriented thinking.
So what can be done now?
It is important to review the current proposal and criticise its weaknesses, to point out those aspects where it could and should be improved.
But it also has to be kept in mind that Tusk’s proposal is a direct response to the crisis in Ukraine – a deeply troubling event, especially given how much some of the member states and associated countries depend on Russia.
It could be a turning point. Europe is still very young, but such events could help it to develop – and an Energy Union could prove that it can make a difference, at least in the field of energy. But if they want to make a difference, they have to approach it with the future in mind, not with the past.
Such as energy efficiency aspects?
We are still far, far away from a sustainable project. It is less ambitious than the EU targets for 2030. The market itself already delivers more efficiency than envisaged in the project. It is strange to deliver a target that is lower than under the business as usual scenario.
And the lack of changes in energy policy, especially in view of global warming, will have spillover effects into other areas as well. For example, why do all these migrants abandon their homes and try to get to Europe? In many cases it's because of changes brought by global warming, such as desertification of farmlands.
Another area is health. We are currently in Krakow, and the air pollution here, in this wonderful pearl of a city, is abominable – mainly because of using coal as fuel. It is especially shocking, giving how modern this country otherwise feels like. But the energy thinking is fossilised.
Do you think that this way of thinking could be changed by the UN conference on climate change, COP21? What are your expectations for it?
I agree 100% with Ban Ki-moon when he said that the European Union should lead by example. We should rethink our targets, both long-term, for 2020 and 2030. Furthermore, the climate fund for poorer countries should be up and running before the COP21 meeting in December.
We should take his words to heart and start serious investments in the environment – for example through the so-called ‘Juncker Plan’, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).
There are many environmentally-friendly projects – in efficiency and renewables – that the member states want to finance through EFSI.
Not enough. If we concentrate the money, the effects could be actually visible in Europe, and would support the idea that the energy union must be about new technologies. Citizens are in favour of new technologies and phasing-out the old technology, including nuclear.
In Poland people are mostly indifferent.
But you should care! Environmental and energy issues have not always been an issue in German politics, so it is possible to change. For Germans the spark of change was the Chernobyl catastrophe but I hope Poland will not need something like that.
The fossil fuel lobby is strong in Poland, especially in a double elections year.
They used to be strong in Germany as well! The change does not come overnight; it should be a continuous transition toward more environmentally-friendly technologies, which should also allow a settlement with the unions.
You should show them that these new technologies mean jobs for the future and many savings going to the taxpayers.
Coming back to the wider picture, what has changed in Europe? The EU used to be a leader on environmental issues, and now we are getting overtaken in some areas like solar power by countries like China, which are traditionally less environmentally-conscious.
China has to struggle with a fast-growing economy, with massive energy consumption and with a growing number of health issues. They had to learn how to make more from less, as their resources are starting to get limited. China’s example should illustrate the potential of energy efficiency.
I know we cannot stop all the coal power plants overnight. I know that natural gas will be part of the European energy equation for a while. But I also know that if we are to win the fight against global warming, we need to leave in the ground the fossil fuels that are left. We have the technologies to replace the old ways of creating energy.
It is irresponsible – both in view of power politics based on energy resources as well as in view of future generations – not to start these changes. Building new coal and nuclear plants are long-term investments – they will be with us for the next 50, 60 years.
The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.