Energy & environment: democratisation of power

Speech Published 20 Nov 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
European Parliament – Joint Parliamentary Meeting on "Energy and Sustainable Development", presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency. Strasbourg, November 20 2008.

Carbon lies at the heart of our current energy and economic policy; its increase in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane is also at the heart of changes in the global climate.

Just over a month ago, the International Global Carbon Observing Programme produced evidence that current global atmospheric carbon levels now exceed those of the most pessimistic projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

More worryingly, the capacity of the world’s ecosystems to absorb carbon has decreased by 5% over the past 40 years, and for the oceans alone the decline is nearer to 16%.

The resilience of our ecosystems is clearly under pressure.

The melting of ice in the Arctic and the acidification of our oceans are enough to keep many scientists awake at night.

The source of much of this excess in carbon emissions comes from energy consumption and production and transport.

Whilst these have been the motors of material wealth in Europe, they have also been disproportionately responsible for many negative impacts on our environment and driven many countries into an unhealthy dependency on distant energy sources.

Our dependence on non-renewable fuel resources, and an ageing infrastructure, mean that a fundamental reform of our energy supply is called for.

Energy analysts, Douglas Westwood, point to four challenges at the heart of ensuring continued supply:

  • first the oil left in the ground, especially in the deep ocean and high Arctic, is getting increasingly difficult to extract;
  • gas flaring is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions;
  • the offshore industry is supported by an ageing infrastructure, and;
  • energy contractors are overwhelmed, with order books filled for at least the next three years and steel in short supply.

An oil and gas crunch is now upon us.

Many of you gathered in this chamber have been at the heart of driving forward a post-carbon economy.

But if we are to secure a sustainable, stable future for the economy and society we need to move more quickly, whilst at the same time being careful to avoid making obvious mistakes that could undermine the very progress we wish to see.

Today’s discussions on the financial crisis, so redolent of the great depression of the 1930’s, have systematically avoided the deeper problem that it was earlier price fluctuations around oil which created large amounts of cash liquidity. Our continued heavy reliance on oil can only mean one thing - that we will continue to see the cycle repeated, with ever increasing intensity.

What can we do?

First it is critical to recognise that policies need to be driven by the real availability of natural resources provided by the planet, rather than the miasma of what is traded through the futures and commodity markets.

As Pavan Sukdev, the Study Leader of the Stern-like study on Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity Valuation, said the price of losing Nature dwarfs the financial crisis. Losing nature means we lose the underpinning of our economies and the cohesion of society. 

We must remember that there are no societies without environments, but there are environments without societies.

The first point is to make accounting for nature the basis for our future energy policy including initiatives such as the UN’ s new Green Economy.

EEA and the Aarhus Convention

The European Environment Agency plays a key role in providing data and information to you and citizens on the natural resources of Europe and how they are being used.

Last week, at the 10th anniversary of the Aarhus Convention, it was clear just how important our role of informing the public really has become. Because, of course, we will now have to make very difficult choices about just how we are going to respond to the challenges of climate change, economic restructuring and social pressures all at once.

One area where Europe’s thinking and policy-making is going in the right direction is around the energy and climate package. But even here short-term expediency could mean that we will foreclose on more sustainable future options.

Today, as part of that process of informing you just what some of those options and solutions might be, we are launching our report on energy and the environment.

Energy and Environment – EEA report

Our analysis confirms that Europe is leading the world in terms of decoupling our Gross Domestic Product from energy intensity and emissions, moving away from carbon as the sole driver of economic growth.

Renewable energy has the highest annual growth rate in total primary energy consumption across the EU.

But it isn’t all good news!

Most of the greenhouse gas emissions come from energy and nearly all of the EU energy system depends on fossil fuels. Half of this fossil fuel comes from outside the EU.

Electricity consumption in the households sector continues to increase.

Nuclear waste continues to accumulate.

If we are committed to placing Europe at the forefront of a post carbon society whilst tackling climate change things will need to change. 

Energy policy and a post carbon society

In the report we also present some existing scenarios to give a perspective on the future. We see that energy consumption will be up to 25% higher by 2030. Fossil fuels will still continue to be the major part of this production.

If we take climate change and ecological resilience seriously, the conclusion is clear - business as usual with a reliance on fossil fuels cannot be an option for the energy sector!

Following discussions with the UN earlier this year, President Pöttering reminded policy makers that the window of opportunity to reduce the impacts of climate change is only 7-8 years at best.

As Barack Obama has now said:

“ Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will once again engage vigorously in these negotiations and help lead the world toward a new era of global cooperation on climate change. Now’s the time to confront this challenge once and for all.  Delay is no longer an option, Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high; the consequences too serious…..”

Today’s EEA report provides a ‘non business as usual’ scenario with more stringent energy and climate change policies, with greater improvements in energy efficiency and higher penetration rates for renewable energy.

Last week in its World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency said “Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically and socially – they can and must be altered”.

Our meeting today is an important step in making the most of the time we have in which to adapt our energy sector.

What kind of energy sector do we need in the future?

Let me share with you a number of thoughts which I hope will inform your own decision-making over the coming period.

The European Energy Council in October and the European Commission’s recent Strategic Energy Review have identified areas of concern, notably:

  • more support is needed to build the required energy infrastructure;
  • the EU has to make better use of its indigenous energy resources;
  • and urgent efforts have to be made to improve energy efficiency.

Europe needs to forge ahead with policies on green technology, diversification of energy supply, energy efficiency and eco-innovation. It may also need to ask whether today’s model of governance of energy is appropriate.

Let me illustrate this last point.

Earlier this year two related but very different events took place. The first was when an 80 metre crane barge from Norway, arrived to transport SeaGen, the world’s largest tidal generation system and the first to be connected to a local electricity grid, in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, a site with special conservation status.

Now installed, it is generating enough clean, zero carbon, renewable electricity to supply a small town. Portugal is now following suit and also putting in place tidal turbines.

This technology was not supported by any government subsidies and as such took more than 10 years to come to market.

The second event took place in a football stadium in London between President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown, as part of the entente formidable as I call it, in which the two leaders agreed to proceed with a programme of nuclear renaissance around the world.

Whilst both represent a response to the demand for non-fossil fuel energy, they differ fundamentally in the scale and underlying model of ownership and distribution. One is suitable for many communities especially at the periphery of Europe, whilst the other can only be seen as a centralised form of supply.

Life cycle assessment and energy

To ensure that the principles of sustainable development are at the heart of all energy policies, the true costs and benefits of utilising each energy source must be properly understood, so that in the end we do not end up disadvantaging the good for the sake of a lower unit price in the short term.

I previously mentioned the potential of tidal power. Another illustration of this is in the Severn estuary -squeezed between Wales and England and with the second highest tidal range in the world.

The area is unique and protected by EU nature conservation legislation. One of the proposals involves a 16km barrage which would require 13 million tonnes of aggregates for its construction.

Once built the barrage could produce 7% of the UK’s energy needs and certainly replace a significant amount of the planned coal-fired power station capacity.

Overall, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, combined with the extensive habitats created need to be carefully weighed up – with a detailed examination of the benefits not just the immediate costs and loss of habitat.

A similar need for a life cycle approach arose in the discussions around biofuels. The EEA showed that the most cost-effective and sustainable use of European biomass was not as a fuel for the transport sector, but instead for electricity and heat production.


If we conclude that a greater share of energy needs to be produced from sustainable renewable sources, the existing grid will have to be radically altered and upgraded so as to make use of a decentralised energy supply.

Ever since the first national grid was constructed in Europe in the 1930s, governments have sought to maximise centralisation: it has always been seen as easier to build a few large power plants that rely on a large number of smaller ones.

But to really benefit from sustainable renewable energy the electricity grid at an EU level needs a complete overhaul. This week the EEA and colleagues are meeting in Paris to consider exactly that; the ‘Super Grid’.

This initiative, supported by President Sarkozy, will allow a better use of the renewable resources around Europe and importantly it allows distribution access for all energy suppliers, from the household to the multinational.

Renewable energy comes in small packages and is distributed for free: the diffuse nature of the energy from the sun, winds, waves and tides means that it is far better suited to a decentralised generating system.

Decentralised energy is more efficient, as it suffers fewer distribution losses, is cheaper as the International Agency for Energy has pointed out, and paradoxically, more secure.

It also represents the democratisation of energy.


Today we have a target of limiting a global temperature increase to 2°C. If we are realistic about achieving this our energy policy needs to change.

The 20/20/20 combination of targets in the energy package is only the first step: 30% was also proposed should the international community also come on board.

Decisions made by heads of state at the European Council next month have the potential to alter the economic and environmental landscape of the EU fundamentally.

But we must also look further ahead to see how we can benefit from technological change at the community as well as national level.

A perfect example of the community approach is the Thisted municipality in Denmark. Here the community has achieved over 100 per cent of its power consumption, and more than 80 per cent of its heat consumption, without the use of fossil fuels.

Sir Nicolas Stern, has added that ‘clean energy is proving to be a convenient policy tool, as it address four major issues; energy security, the economy, unemployment and climate change’

In our energy and environment report we highlight that energy production is having a detrimental impact on our environment, and that we still rely heavily on fossil fuels.

Our commitment to a post carbon economy via a shift towards sustainable renewable energy will be essential for energy security and tacking climate change.

This approach, together with decentralising energy supply and taking a life cycle perspective, is the only route to a truly sustainable and secure future. It is all about giving Power to the People.


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