A fair energy transition in Europe
The Energy Union will receive a special weight in the new EU Commission since it will constitute the portfolio of one of the 7 Vice Presidents, Ms Bratusek. Will she put in place a fair energy transition?
The assumption of a peak oil event is the clearest illustration of the fact that Europe needs alternative sources of energy. The perspective of this physically limited resource is even more dramatic in the face of the growing consumption by the emerging economies; this can only mean they will be exhausted more rapidly. The logic behind the access to fossil fuel sources of energy is to move from the more easily accessible to the more difficult ones (e.g. deep waters, Polar regions) or those requiring more complex technology (e.g. fracking); but in any case, the path heads in the unavoidable direction of scarcity of resources and higher prices. Is this the kind of energy transition we want ?
"A fair energy transition. A challenge for Europe" was precisely the title of a conference held in Paris last 10th to 12th September. It was organized by CERAS, a centre of social analysis run by the Jesuits in France and by the editor of the well-known journal Projet.
Another aspect that reinforces the importance of the chosen conference theme of “fair energy transition’ is its relationship with climate change. As only the containment of the rising global temperatures below 2° C will allow a sustainable future, it is therefore essential to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, especially CO2. The emissions from energy production and transport account for more than half of the total emissions. If greenhouse gases reduction targets are to be achieved the contribution of renewable energy is crucial. Only a new energy mix, in which renewables play an important role, is likely to have a significant impact on reducing emissions.
A final feature of the importance of the chosen conference topic that energy is a critical issue for Europe's competitiveness at a time of weak growth, is that to have cheaper sources of energy would undoubtedly be an important argument for alternatives to the energy that comes from fossil sources.
In terms of opportunity, the present conflict in Ukraine -with escalating sanctions and countermeasures - between the European Union and Russia shows that the discussion on the energy transition is timely. In order to move decisively toward greater energy self-sufficiency we need to agree new models of generation, distribution and consumption of energy other than the current ones. The present dependence of Europe on foreign oil and gas is a real threat to our living standards and economic activity.
The Conference has a previous track that should also be noted. During the preceding months CERAS organized intense activites through different working groups: energy companies, trade unions and civil society were invited to share their views and to contribute to preparing the content of the conference. We should highlight the efforts of the organizers both in offering a bringing together of experts and researchers on such a highly technical topic and to emphasize the social implications, the social justice, involved in a shift of this type. During the Conference these social implications were very present and in each plenary session or workshop there was always one or several representatives of civil society.
More than 200 people attended the Conference and over 50 experts from academia, research, business, government and civil society intervened in plenary sessions and workshops. The first analysis focused on the inequalities that emerge from energy consumption (difficulties of access to transport, energy poverty) or are enhanced by energy issues (biofuels v. food production). The second refers to the major challenges identified by CERAS: our patterns of consumption, the concept of democracy and the need to keep all these changes within a framework where social justice plays a determinant role (especially in sensitive areas such as employment, taxation or the regulation of the energy markets).
And the third big focus of the Conference was the European perspective, mainly with regard to three major aspects: the financing of the energy transition, the need to grant universal access and the European interdependence in energy. There is a different approach towards energy production among the EU Member States: the nuclear option in France, the support to coal given by Poland or Britain’s oil reserves, also linked to the historical fact of having (or not having) such natural resources. But we cannot forget the present commitment of the European Union in order to move forward towards cleaner and renewable sources of energy; and the demands for a more integrated electricity supply grid in the continent. As was pointed in the Conference, the energy transition only makes sense in the context of Europe as a space of integration, as well as in terms of energy. Due to the amount of the investment needed for this transition, energy should contribute to the integration of our economies and societies.
Again, the discussion showed that issues of justice in Europe cannot be solved only from a technical perspective. But it also showed that to promote a more just society requires the integrated contribution by all the stakeholders. And the energy issue is a clear example.
Jose Ignacio Garcia SJ