Fit for 55 – Europe must simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, improve energy efficiency and fight energy poverty

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At its December plenary session, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the European Commission highlighted three top priorities to ensure a resilient and sustainable future for the European Union.

The energy sector plays a crucial role in the fight against climate change and is integral to people's lives and the EU economy. At the December plenary session on 9 December 2021, EESC president Christa Schweng and European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson took a firm stand: the EESC and the European Commission must join forces to ensure a fair green and energy transition and build a stronger and more resilient post-COVID-19 Europe.

Mentioning the vital role played by energy, Ms Schweng said: We have a lot of work ahead of us. Firstly, Europe's energy sector needs to be decarbonised as quickly and efficiently as possible. Secondly, Europe must address its energy dependence to ensure its energy security and prevent rising energy prices. Thirdly, preventing energy poverty must remain a top priority of the EU, and the EESC is strongly committed to this.

On the same wavelength, stressing the fact that energy prices had remained high since October 2021, Ms Simson added: We are still fundamentally dependent on gas: the recent spike in European energy prices, impacted by the global gas wholesale markets, is proof of this. The long-term solution must include greater energy efficiency and more renewables to deal with these kinds of shocks.

Referring to the Communication on Energy Prices, adopted in October 2021, Ms Simson mentioned the "toolbox" of measures adopted by the Commission to address the immediate impact of current price increases and further strengthen resilience against future shocks. Short-term national measures included emergency income support to households, state aid for companies, and targeted tax reductions. At the same time, to ensure that no one was left behind, the new Social Climate Fund would support energy efficiency investments and provide possible financial support to vulnerable households.

The December plenary saw the approval of six EESC opinions on energy and transport related to the Fit for 55 package presented by the European Commission in July 2021.

Focus on renewable energy and energy efficiency

In its opinion on the Review of the Renewable Energy Directive, drawn up by Christophe Quarez and Lutz Ribbe, the EESC welcomes the increase in the targeted share of renewable energy and the focus on the industrial, transport and housing sectors. Renewable energy policy is expected to deliver in three areas: climate change mitigation, energy security and economic development through job creation, said Mr Quarez.

However, it is disappointing to note the Commission's lack of ambition when it comes to promoting and developing individual and community-based prosumerism, contrary to what was provided for in the Energy Union communication. Citizens, especially young people, must be at the heart of European energy policy, added Mr Ribbe.

In the opinion on the Review of the Energy Efficiency Directive, drawn up by Alena Mastantuono, the Committee supports the proposal for recasting the Energy Efficiency Directive, which provides for action that is key to achieving full decarbonisation of the EU economy and society, while also setting out the leading role of the public sector, including local and regional authorities.

Commenting on the Commission's document, Ms Mastantuono said: The greater emphasis on informing and empowering consumers, for example in the area of contract requirements or the use of clear and comprehensible language, is extremely important. So is the role of civil society in information campaigns on the benefits of energy efficiency.

Alternative fuels infrastructure and maritime and air transport

In general terms, the EESC warns that the decarbonisation of transport is closely linked to a rapid increase in the generation of green electricity. In its opinion on the proposal for a Regulation on deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure, drawn up by John Comer, the Committee stresses that increased investment in green electricity is essential.

The upgrading of the electricity grid must be an immediate priority so as to facilitate fast charging stations as well as the manufacture of hydrogen and other alternative fuels. Bidirectional smart meters also need to be installed in order to enable electricity to flow both ways, commented Mr Comer.

With reference to maritime transport in particular, the EESC welcomes the Commission's proposal for a Regulation on the use of renewable and low-carbon fuels in maritime transport. In the opinion on FuelEU Maritime, drawn up by Constantine Catsambis, the Committee recommends that EU maritime transport rules be harmonised with the regulations of the International Maritime Organization, due to the international nature of shipping.

At the moment, international shipping is fossil-fuel captive: for full decarbonisation, we need valid alternatives to become widely available, for example low-carbon or zero-carbon marine fuels together with breakthrough propulsion technologies, emphasised Mr Catsambis.

As far as air transport is concerned, in its opinion on the Revision of the EU Emission Trading System for Aviation, drafted by Dumitru Fornea, the EESC says that the Commission's initiative is a welcome step in reducing the climate impact of the aviation sector, but that it should also focus on the need to maintain a level playing-field and protect social and working rights.

In this respect, Mr Fornea noted: Aviation and all its stakeholders must play their part in trying to achieve a sustainable aviation industry, but this can only be done through social dialogue and engagement with trade unions in the sector, who are a critical part of the climate transition.

Caring for the most vulnerable

Finally, in the opinion on the Social Climate Fund, drawn up by Thomas Kattnig and Alena Mastantuono, the EESC welcomes the establishment of a Social Climate Fund to mitigate the negative social and economic impacts of the new carbon pricing.

With this regulation, the Commission credibly demonstrates its willingness to combat energy and mobility poverty, but we need concrete measures at both national and European level, including better access to subsidies for thermal renovations or the replacement of heating systems for energy-poor households, Mr Kattnig pointed out.

However, the EESC believes that the proposed fund will not provide sufficient financial support to responsibly address the socio-economic effects of carbon pricing. We need more far-reaching accompanying measures and resources at EU and national level, and we call on Member States to put forward other available financial resources to make the most efficient use of the Social Climate Fund, added Ms Mastantuono.

Views of organised civil society on the Fit for 55 package

During the debate, Stefano Mallia, president of the EESC's Employers' Group, underlined that the Fit for 55 package was ambitious, but that it could be implemented successfully if emissions reductions were coupled with investment in low-carbon technologies.

Thomas Kattnig, on behalf of the EESC's Workers' Group, highlighted that civil society and the social partners must be involved in framing the national social and climate plans, calling on Member States to harness the synergies of the Social Climate Fund to fight energy and mobility poverty.

Finally, Séamus Boland, president of the EESC's Diversity Europe Group, pointed out that as the Fit for 55 package would affect the lives of every European citizen, it was crucial for civil society organisations to be empowered to lead, design and implement the transition towards reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.