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The missing piece: decarbonising transport and heating in the Danube Region

The EU agreed to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 – a new target that will require emissions to fall faster in all sectors. The national energy and climate plans (NECPs) are key instruments that pave the way for increased climate ambition.

Based on the findings of the study of NECPs in the Danube Region experts analysed two important energy policy areas largely influencing decarbonisation efforts in the (yet) non-ETS sectors: the deployment of renewable energy in the heating and cooling sector, and the transport sector. The summary of the main takeaways of the Danube Region’s NECPs focusing on the transformation of the electricity and gas markets in the region can be read here.

E-mobility, the low-hanging fruit of the transport revolution?

Currently, the target share of renewables in the transport sector by 2030 is 14 per cent, although the EU eyes to boost it to 26 per cent as part of a wider package of measures to reach a 2030 target to reduce emissions by 55 per cent.

Transportation is the only sector to see a rise in emissions over the last two decades and in the Danube Region, emissions from the sector grew faster than the EU average.

“In the Danube Region the majority of countries did not commit to a higher value than the obligatory minimum 14 per cent renewables target,” said András Vékony, Senior Research Associate at REKK and co-author of the study.

According to Julian Popov, Fellow at the European Climate Foundation the main reason behind this lack of ambition is fear and no extrapolation of previous and current trends, which is a serious mistake.

“We are in the middle of a major mobility revolution, which is not simply about switching from diesel to electric or hydrogen, it is about the change of logistics, fuels, technologies, working patterns and all of this is happening at a very high speed. None of these is reflected in the national strategies,” he said.

According to Mr Popov, it’s important to be prepared for these changes. He also missed bold ambition and international cooperation regarding cross-border transport in the Danube Region’s strategies.

The study also highlighted that for Danube Region, EU countries electromobility is considered to be the key solution. The most common measures include the development of charging networks, purchase subsidies and allowances for EVs. However, the study noted that although fuel-switch is crucial, Danube Region countries should also incentivise modal-shift, to public transportation, non-motorised modes and rail.

Matjaž Vrčko, Head of Public Transportation Division at the Ministry of Infrastructure of Slovenia emphasised that the transport sector is interconnected with all other sectors of the economy and the changes must be overarching considering the complexity of the issue. The alternative fuels are part of the solution but it’s not the whole picture. The study has shown that in the Danube Region only Slovenia and Austria included pedestrian infrastructure in plans for non-motorised transport modes.

According to Martin Sambale, Expert of EZA (Energie- und Umweltzentrum Allgäu), it is the easiest way for policy designers to start with the fuel shift to electric cars, but we need a modal-shift and a change in our lifestyles. The pandemic gave us a trial to rethink our transport needs and patterns. Mr Samble pointed out that funding of railroads, bike and pedestrian traffic is not sufficient, while a better system would contribute to more use. He took the example of the Netherlands, where they really pushed citizens to use bikes just by giving room to the other ways of transport besides cars.

As Tomas Smejkal, Head of the Strategy Unit at the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade explained, it is understandable that the NECPs are focused on fuel as the main task of the document was to set out how countries envisage achieving the 14 per cent target. Of course, the modal shift is still very important. Besides the NECP the Czech Republic also developed an urban strategy on how to change transport in cities. As he said the idea that everything should be in the NECP doesn’t make sense.

“There is now an overemphasis on EVs but we have to put all solutions in the basket,” underlined Mr Smejkal adding that for the Czech Republic biomethane is an important alternative of reducing emissions from the transport sector.

Biomass, the elephant in the room

Heating and cooling play a crucial role in the EU’s ambition to transition into a clean and carbon-neutral economy, specifically as heating and cooling in buildings and industry accounts for half of the EU’s energy consumption, making it the biggest energy end-use sector ahead of both transport and electricity. However EU regulation does not contain specific mandatory targets for the share of renewable heat consumption and each country voluntarily defines its own indicative sectoral ambitions.

The heating and cooling sector plays a very important role in reaching the overarching RES targets of EU member Danube Region countries. According to the study of REKK, renewable heat represents more than 20 per cent of heat demand with the exception of Germany and Slovakia and five countries have shares around 40 per cent or higher.

In the region, all countries aim to mitigate fossil fuel reliance, mainly using biomass. Accordingly, biomass-to-heat and biomass-based electricity together are expecting a 35 per cent increase in the next decade. The authors of the study warn of the risks embedded in these plans. As they note, supporting the burning of the ubiquitous and affordable forestry biomass, awarding its burning with zero accounted carbon emissions and ignoring the climate economic value of forest sequestration and storage of carbon is a one-sided policy.

Julian Popov underlined that biomass is the big elephant in the room and we must be aware of the fact that a big part of the achievements in terms of renewable energy in Southeast Europe is attributed to the extensive use of biomass, which is perceived very often as a long-term technology, as we saw it in the study. He pointed out that biomass is a highly inefficient use of wood for domestic heating and it should be approached also as an energy efficiency issue.

Biljana Grbić, Advisor at the Energy Community Secretariat noted that biomass is also extensively used in Western Balkan countries. A study conducted by the World Bank showed for instance, that in Kosovo they use 50 per cent more biomass than the annual growth of forests in the country. Mrs Grbić also brought up the support of solutions for decentralised heating which is inextricably linked to the issue of energy poverty, a prevailing problem in the Western Balkans.

“Energy poverty should be addressed by the consumer’s perspective and not by energy prices,” added Mr Popov emphasising that keeping energy prices low by subsidising energy prices helps the rich and not the poor as they are very limited users of energy. Therefore he called for a reform of the system for support.

According to Mr Popov, the biggest bottleneck is not money. During the pandemic savings increased, the problem is more how to get this money out of the banks and channel it into building renovation, which is a big challenge and opportunity of the recovery.

The next revision of the NECPs is due in 2023, which will probably incorporate the increased GHG target and also the new sectoral targets to be released by the Commission in July.

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