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The EU’s climate challenge of 2024: Tackling the planning gap head-on

April 2, 2024

In the last four years, Europe has undertaken an unprecedented legislative marathon fuelled by its climate ambitions. With the ‘Fit for 55’ package and other initiatives like the Net Zero Industry Act now largely in place, the EU has made its first substantial steps towards the clean energy transition. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Despite all the progress, the EU remains offtrack to hit its climate goals and looks unable to meet the Paris Agreement targets. In fact, while the goals are clearly outlined, the path to get there isn’t as clear. Europe is facing a planning gap, which, left unaddressed, might jeopardize climate action altogether. Climate goals will remain out of reach unless we rethink planning – the myriad of processes and decisions that culminate in determining what infrastructure will be constructed, by whom, when, and where. 

With uncertainties around the next Commission term, the climate debate in the EU is shifting from passing legislation to implementing a raft of new policies. Governments must not jump straight into doing without adequate planning. How these climate policies are implemented will impact each country’s energy transition. It is imperative for Member States to reflect and elevate their planning endeavours to ensure a successful journey toward a climate-neutral future. The need for upgrading our planning processes is especially pressing given the symptoms of inadequate planning, such as long interconnection queues, slow renewable energy deployment, and strained supply chains, have stifled the transition so far. Governments must revisit their constituencies and engage in a conscientious examination of how they intend to bring to fruition the ambitious targets on which they have collectively agreed for 2030 and 2050.  

One fundamental aspect of this process is the formulation of updated National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to 2030 – Europe’s main planning and tracking framework. These plans are set to be finalised by June 2024. In December, the Commission assessed whether Europe’s NECPs are fit for achieving the 2030 climate and energy targets. The answer was clear. The draft plans still lack the credibility and substance required to set Europe on the path to deep decarbonisation. Further, this lack of clarity is a major impediment towards the long-term investment needed to build the energy systems of the future. 

Take carbon capture and storage as an example. Despite the explicit guidance from the Commission and the legal requirements in the Net Zero Industry Act, only 7 out of 26 Member States that have submitted draft NECPs included a specific target for how much CO2 will need to be captured and stored. This does not even address the lengthy process to survey potential sites, evaluate the geologic conditions for storage, engineering design, and finance of CO2 storage facilities, which will take many years. If Europe is to reach the target of 250 million tonnes of storage capacity set out in the Commission’s Industrial Carbon Management Strategy, EU Member States must plan for it now. 

Similarly, out of the 19 Member States that plan to reduce methane emissions, only 4 explicitly state a methane emission reduction target in their draft NECPs. In both cases, we have ambitious bloc-wide targets but no detailed plan for how Member States are going to contribute to these goals. 

Other areas lack details, especially regarding novel and ground-breaking clean technologies. While each country independently decides on its own energy mix and use of nuclear energy, the 14 countries that have mentioned small modular reactors (SMRs) in their draft NECPs only state their general interest and vague references to additional research with some exceptions like the Czech Republic. Without a roadmap from how the country gets from being interested in SMRs to constructing its first reactor, including demand aggregation, financial arrangements, and accessing necessary licensing and oversight capability, these ambitious ideas are likely to remain on paper only.  

The infrastructure of a decarbonised Europe needs to be planned, in detail and with interim targets, today

The deadline for this decade’s final, updated NECPs is now three months away – and it’s not too late to get Europe’s NECPs right. It’s not too late to provide clear pathways and policy details that provide predictability and certainty to investors. And it’s not too late to embrace uncertainty and risk, crafting and modelling the current set of NECPs to be resilient against various contingencies (e.g. conflicts, supply chain, and raw material bottlenecks), and to align with evolving market realities. Member States must provide a pathway and allocate resources for the development and demonstration of the broadest possible portfolio of technology, system and infrastructure options informed by industrial and societal needs, progress and learning. 

Clean Air Task Force’s NECP Playbooks on carbon capture and storage, clean hydrogen, methane mitigation, superhot rock geothermal energy, and small modular reactors aim to support countries in this important planning endeavour. 

Europe and its Member States need a fundamental shift in how they approach climate and energy planning, moving from a box-ticking bureaucratic exercise to a political and strategic priority.  There are still three months left for addressing Europe’s planning gap. Because only with well-thought-out, future proof NECPs, can Europe move into fast-forward implementation. 

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