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EESC-CCMI reflection on the energy transition towards a carbon-neutral Europe

The EU is well on track to achieve the 2020 targets on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. However, maintaining a healthy trajectory towards a carbon-neutral economy will demand clear investment planning in R&D and infrastructure, significant clean energy deployment and political will, both internationally and at home, over the coming decades.

In the past 30 years, the EU has reduced emissions by 20 % while the economy has grown by 58 %. "We have proved that it is possible to decouple emissions from economic growth. The EU will be climate-neutral one or two decades before the rest of the world!" said Cecile Hanoune, who is responsible for Strategy and Economic Assessment at DG Clima, at the meeting of the EESC Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI).

The share of renewable energy in the EU energy mix has significantly increased, reaching 17.5 % in 2017. However, it has proven more successful in some sectors than others. Heating and cooling and the transport sector have seen some of the lowest rates of renewable energy usage. "The energy transition will be costly, but not acting would be even more costly," said Hans Van Steens, who is responsible for Renewables, Research and Innovation and Energy Efficiency at DG Energy, referring to the additional investment needed in infrastructure and clean energy R&D, which will come mainly from the private sector.

These and other short- and long-term measures were identified in the Industrial Transformation Master Plan for climate-neutral industry by 2050. Vincent Basuyau, who is responsible for resource efficiency and raw materials at DG Grow, explained how the plan addresses sustainability and the future competitiveness of EU industry in a global context.

The path to a carbon-neutral economy will rely on a mix of different energy sources. Certain CCMI members voiced concerns about nuclear energy, which is expected to maintain its relative share of the EU's energy mix. Europe is taking a leading role in developing nuclear fusion as a promising low-carbon energy source in the future. In the meantime, hydrogen may represent a reliable alternative. "People usually criticize hydrogen for its lack of efficiency. I would argue that electricity is 0 % efficient if it doesn't reach your car," said Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary-general at Hydrogen Europe. Harvesting renewable energy, distributing energy cheaply and decarbonizing transportation and heat are some of the benefits of low carbon emissions energy.

"Since 1990, the Chemical industry has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 60 %," explained Charles Henri Robert, executive director for climate change and energy at the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC). Better alignment between climate and energy policy, investment in innovation and infrastructure and incentives for circular products were just some of the key enablers pointed out in relation to lowering emissions in the chemical industry.

Representing another major energy intensive industry, Axel Eggert, director-general of the European Steel Association (EUROFER), voiced his concerns on the need for a level playing field for European steel producers that compete globally with state subsidized players like China. "We reduced our emissions by 28 % since 1990. To stay competitive the necessary regulatory frameworks need to be put in place", he said.

Based on the Commission's estimates, the EU should achieve a 45 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which is above the Paris Agreement targets. However, the work at the international level must continue. The G7 and G20 meetings as well as Trade Agreements have been used as tools to drive the global climate agenda forward.