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A blueprint for the EU's ecological transition

Bell peppers growing in a heated greenhouse in the Netherlands. © iStock Photos

Bell peppers growing in a heated greenhouse in the Netherlands. © iStock Photos

Two EPFL researchers have contributed to a discussion paper for new members of the European Parliament, published ahead of the resumption of parliamentary business this week. In their chapter, they suggest that reversing the tide of deindustrialization and redistributing industrial activities in Europe could cut energy consumption and CO2 emissions in the long run.

As they get down to work this week, new members of the European Parliament and new EU leaders will be handed a copy of a discussion paper published by the think tank Friends of Europe. The paper, entitled The overlooked side of the ecological transition, sets out a series of recommendations on the EU’s ecological transition. They were formulated by NGOs and key figures such as Janez Potočnik, who served as the European Commissioner for the Environment between 2009 and 2014.

Two EPFL researchers were asked to write the chapter on the EU’s energy transition. Here, we talk to Vincent Moreau from the Laboratory of Environmental and Urban Economics (LEURE), who co-authored the chapter with François Vuille, the former executive director of the EPFL Energy Center.

How did you come to work with Friends of Europe?

In 2018 and 2019, François and I published two articles on decoupling economic growth and energy use in Switzerland and the EU (see “References” below). In both articles, we examine direct energy use in Europe and energy embodied in imports. Since 1990, energy efficiency measures and outsourcing have equally contributed to a reduction in energy consumption of 40%, almost entirely offset by population and economic growth. But embodied energy has increased over the same period. If we look at total energy consumption, we can conclude that, despite this decoupling, Europe continues to use more and more energy. Friends of Europe got in touch with us after reading our research. They asked us to produce a condensed, easy-to-digest summary of our conclusions from the EU article for the new batch of parliament members who took office in early July. Since environmental issues were high on the agenda this spring, the idea was to publish a paper that would stimulate further discussion.

What recommendations did you make?

We made two key recommendations for decoupling economic growth and energy use. First, we encourage the EU to measure the energy intensity of production in a way that takes account of its industrial structure, i.e., in view of whether certain activities were outsourced within or outside the EU or relocated. Second, we suggest that the EU should calculate how much it could cut total energy use by bringing some outsourced industrial activities back onto European soil and rethinking how production is distributed across the continent.

Could you give us an example?

The EU economy is, at least in part, divided along national lines. France and Spain have agricultural economies, while the automotive industry and other manufacturing sectors dominate in Germany and the UK. The Netherlands is a major vegetable exporter. Although the crops are cheap to produce, it’s an energy-intensive process because the heated greenhouses run on North Sea gas. The same goes for the automotive industry, where some parts could be manufactured in modern, energy-efficient plants in Eastern Europe rather than in Germany. We urge the EU to consider the implications of these points in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Do your recommendations also hold true for Switzerland?

To some extent, although Swiss output is less energy-intensive because the economy is much more specialized. Recent research at the lab has shown that Switzerland needs to do more on cutting energy use, not least in transport, building insulation and food production. Energy embodied in Swiss imports is on a par with domestic consumption. And there’s been no reduction in CO2 emissions from transport since Switzerland ratified the Kyoto Protocol over 17 years ago. The modal share of public transport is just 20% – well below the 50%-plus target – and cars still account for 60% of passenger travel by distance.

What’s the focus of your research going forward?

We’re currently looking at the “rebound effect” of energy efficiency measures in industry. How do we ensure that firms don’t take the money they save from switching to renewables and reinvest it in polluting activities, for example? Can we model and predict this effect? Those are the questions we’re exploring right now.