14 September 2016

Brexit: a chance for European countries to deepen cooperation on renewables?

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Many Europeans think that Brexit is a regrettable choice. Others consider the pro-leave vote a chance both for the EU and the UK

After the Brexit shock in Europe, an intensive debate has started to figure out the future energy strategy of the European Union without the UK.

Some analysts believe that the success of the pro-leave vote in the British referendum can open the way for those EU member states which aim to integrate renewable energy faster.

“The UK was strictly against the national targets in the EU’s renewable Directive (20% energy production from renewables by 2020)”, says Severin Fisher, expert in European Energy policy and senior researcher at the Centre for Security Studies in Zurich. After all, the history of their energy production is closely linked to their natural resources of fossil fuels, which is why they started from a very low level of renewable energy consumption compared to other Member States.

Once the UK leaves the EU, Fisher envisages “better chances - for example for Germany - to push for stricter rules through the policy process on the renewables front”. Moreover, the British government has always proposed a so-called "technology neutral approach", which means that “they should try to fulfil their climate targets but the EU should not prescribe which technology should be used", he explains.

In particular, the previous conservative government withdrew support for onshore wind. “They basically said that the main development for renewables should be offshore wind, though it is problematic because it is expensive,” says Antony Froggatt, Senior Research Fellow on Energy and Environment at Chatam House in London. He adds that there is no indication that the new government led by Theresa May will change this policy.

On the other hand, the UK remains very committed to greenhouse gas reduction. This summer the Parliament approved the fifth carbon budget that envisages a 57% drop in CO2 emissions from the 1990 levels by the period 2028-2032. It sets the bar higher than the EU, which requires a 40% cut by 2030.

“The question is how targets for reducing greenhouse emissions will be met  in the medium to longer term, given the fact that nuclear energy is moving very slowly, they are abandoning carbon capture and storage (CCS) and they are slowing down the development of renewables”, Froggatt points out.

The shape of the future relationship between the EU and Great Britain remains unclear, but an infringement procedure against the country is unlikely during the potentially protracted leaving process.

“The UK could be part of the EEA, similar to Norway, which is bound by much of the EU legislation, including the renewable energy Directive. If we assume that there is some sort of free trade agreement between the UK and the EU, then yes, London won’t be bound by the 2020 targets”, Froggatt says.

The consequences of the referendum on research and development in renewables are yet to be felt. “At the moment we do not foresee any impacts from Brexit in the EU projects in which we are currently involved,” said Vinicius Valente, communication adviser at EUREC, an association representing research centres active on renewables.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron said to the Parliament that contracts signed under Horizon 2020 research programme will continue, remarks Valente, “but it’s unclear if, post-Brexit, the contracts will be honoured with EU-money or British money”.

Nottingham is one of the “lighthouse” cities of the European REMOURBAN (REgeneration MOdel for accelerating the smart URBAN transformation) project. The scheduled actions include a programme to renovate hundreds of social and private homes in the Sneinton district, to make them energy efficient and to reduce bills.

The first 130 properties covered by the project have been completed. Another chunk of around the same number is at the design stage, while the last two groups, around ninety properties, are at an early planning stage.

“The budget we need to use to deliver the ongoing REMOURBAN project will be safe, but other projects may suffer,” said Emily Braham, head of Sustainable Energy at Nottingham City Homes, “After Brexit was announced, we have been asked to re-evaluate all of our internal budgets.” Braham worries that in the longer term Brexit will reduce the opportunities to roll out innovative energy-saving measures to other properties.

Analysts say that the future relationship between Brussels and London will affect the degree of the UK’s access to the funds; overall the impact will be negative.

“The UK gets funding for the deployment of renewable energy through structural funds, or in terms of the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) or via loans from the European Investment Bank”, explains Froggatt.

As The Guardian recently reported, British researchers receive about £1bn a year from EU funded programmes. Many academics have raised concerns about the effect of Brexit on national research income.

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