Columnists: Brook Riley, Rockwool International

Published on: 19 May 2013

Poetic justice on the Energy Efficiency Directive

We’ve reached the end of an eight month struggle. The European Commission has just closed a UK-backed loophole in the EU Energy Efficiency Directive. Much against its will, the self-proclaimed 'greenest government ever' must deliver extra energy savings equivalent to about 20 million tons of CO2 cuts – or 30 million transatlantic flights.

In the dry technical world of directives, measures and articles, this is a major victory. So what's the back story?

The Energy Efficiency Directive, which was adopted in autumn last year, is the EU's main piece of legislation to deliver its 20% by 2020 energy savings target.

The central measure in the directive is a binding annual 1.5% savings target for each EU member state. In truth, it's a 1.1% target, due to national governments' insistence on four loopholes which collectively lower the ambition level by a quarter.

But the UK got greedy, and pressed for an additional exemption for countries which had already set up schemes to oblige energy companies to deliver energy savings (as the UK has with its Carbon Emission Reduction Target).

This exemption was centred on text in the directive which, the UK argued, allowed it to meet the annual target with savings achieved before the directive enters into force. This accounting trick would reduce the real UK target to roughly 0.75% or less.

Let's be clear. It is all to the UK's credit that it set up energy saving schemes. In fact the Commission used British initiatives as a model for its own work on the directive. But the directive was proposed precisely because analysis showed the EU was only on track to deliver half of its 20% by 2020 savings target. And the UK was trying to close the gap by crediting savings which had already been taken into account.

Senior sources I spoke to admitted this UK scam was tolerated only in order to wrap up the political negotiations on the directive, and that it wasn't backed up by the legal text. But they weren't prepared to state this publicly, partly because they were under heavy pressure from the UK government, partly because they didn't want to re-examine such a thorny dossier.

I first blogged about this last October with Erica Hope from Climate Action Network. Subsequently, Austria, Germany and Finland – which are not eligible for the loophole – wrote to the Commission to complain. No government, they argued, should be able to weaken the 1.5% target by more than a quarter.

The Commission referred the issue to its legal service. I don't have a copy of the service's decision. But a very recent Commission interpretative note – which has not yet been officially released – agrees with the Austrian / German / Finnish position.

The result is that the UK will have to make its measures a lot more ambitious to meet its savings obligations. This is great news for efforts to cut energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. It's also payback for the UK's hypocritical habit of calling for a higher greenhouse gas reduction target, but opposing the energy efficiency policies needed to get there.

Other columns by Brook Riley