Maroš Šefčovič: Regions and cities have a strategic role in implementing the Energy Union
​Maroš Šefčovič

"I want to reform and reorganise Europe’s energy policy in a new European Energy Union", said Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission, at the beginning of his term of office. We met with his Vice-President responsible for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič, to see more clearly where we stand today in terms of deploying a new energy policy of this kind.

Interview by Branislav Stanicek

Mr Šefčovič, could you briefly set out the new Energy Union strategy?

The Energy Union is primarily about a fundamental transition in Europe's energy system towards a low-carbon economy, where energy security is based on solidarity and trust. We want energy to flow freely in an integrated EU-wide energy system and to create a market where strong and competitive companies can develop the products and technologies of the future with the help of European research and innovation. Furthermore, the Energy Union supports a sustainable, low-carbon, and environment-friendly economy, where, ultimately, citizens are empowered to take ownership of the energy transition by using smart technology to reduce their bills and participate in the market.

What are those key dimensions of the Energy Union?

The strategy is built on five dimensions and we have identified 15 action points that we are going to develop in the next five years within these dimensions. In our search for energy security, we are going to focus on diversifying our energy supplies, stronger European energy diplomacy, and more transparency on gas supply. To achieve a fully-integrated internal energy market we are placing emphasis on the full implementation and enforcement of existing rules, prioritisation of key infrastructure projects, development of regional cooperation, empowering consumers, and protecting the vulnerable ones.

We continue to emphasise the role of energy efficiency and its contribution to reducing energy demand. We need to start treating energy efficiency as an energy source in its own right, representing the value of energy saved. All economic sectors must take steps to reduce their energy consumption, particularly where there is still significant energy efficiency potential and where quick wins are possible, in particular the transport and buildings sector.

What is your view on decarbonisation and a well-functioning CO2 market?

This is a very important issue. The Energy Union places emphasis on decarbonising our economy. It draws on an ambitious climate policy based on a well-functioning carbon market. It also relies on a continuous and large-scale deployment of renewables and the decarbonisation of the transport sector. But both of these targets require a gradual transformation of both electricity and transport systems.

In order to achieve this transition towards a low-carbon economy, we need to regain our global technological leadership. Thus, we need to better coordinate and focus our research efforts so that they complement the transition on which we are embarking. Only through domestic technology development and its subsequent implementation across the EU will we create business opportunities, green growth, and jobs.

The strategy met with positive reactions in the European Parliament and was endorsed by the European Council in March, but now we are raising awareness and gathering support for it among stakeholders. That is why I announced the "Energy Union Tour" during which I will travel to EU Member States to present and discuss our preliminary analysis of the opportunities the Energy Union will bring and which will feed into the first State of the Energy Union report, which the European Commission will present to the European Parliament and Council in the autumn of this year. It will become an important instrument for monitoring our progress in implementing the Energy Union at the European, regional, and national level.

What is the Energy Union's role in geopolitical stabilisation, especially towards our eastern border?

In this respect, the Energy Union's primary objective is securing the European Union's supply of energy through the diversification of energies, suppliers, and routes, completion of the internal energy market and more efficient energy consumption. Only joint approaches and a spirit of solidarity can make the European Union stronger and more resilient to any supply disruptions resulting from geopolitical destabilisation in our neighbourhood.

But the political challenges that we have witnessed during the last year have both energy- related and external consequences. The Energy Union includes a strong energy diplomacy component that aims to project the EU's weight on global energy markets and engage more constructively with its partners. We plan to establish strategic energy partnerships with important producing and transit countries such as Algeria, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and also countries in the Middle East, Africa, and others. Norway, being the second largest supplier of crude oil and natural gas, will continue to play a key role in our energy plans. Our energy diplomacy will also focus on transatlantic cooperation by developing partnerships with the United States and Canada. When conditions are right, the EU should also consider reframing the energy relationship with Russia.

We are pursuing these efforts and strategic partnerships, not only to increase the security of our energy supplies, but also to engage with these countries on other matters which can have a plethora of benefits for them. All of our activities with external dimensions are closely coordinated with those of the High Representative and other institutions.

"Local and regional governments have a strategic role
in implementing all the Commission's initiatives,
ranging from the Energy Union to the Growth and Investment Plan. 78% of Europeans live in cities and 85% of GDP is generated in cities, so their significance
for our society is undeniable."

People often talk about the so-called green cities and regions. What role do local and regional governments play in the Energy Union?

Local and regional governments have a strategic role in implementing all the Commission's initiatives, ranging from the Energy Union to the Growth and Investment Plan. 78% of Europeans live in cities and 85% of GDP is generated in cities, so their significance for our society is undeniable.

If we want to achieve our energy transition, we have to get the mayors and regional representatives on board. If we want people to buy energy-efficient appliances, renovate their homes for efficiency gains, install solar panels on their roofs, drive electric cars, and conduct innovative research in this sector, people have to be encouraged by their national and local governments. And we all need to work together to provide the necessary conditions for city councils to promote a green, sustainable, and efficient way of life, while respecting the subsidiarity principle. The work of the Smart Cities and Communities initiatives as well as that of the Covenant of Mayors, which is primarily carried forward by mayors, civil society organisations, investors, financial institutions and service providers, is important for achieving progress on energy efficiency in and outside the EU.

What will be the future of the Smart Cities initiatives?

We are redesigning our current Smart Cities initiatives to ensure better regulation, streamlining of current projects, focusing on specific objectives and creating synergies between our efforts. In addition to simplifying the current framework, we are going to focus the Smart Cities agenda on connecting and integrating the hardware in our cities. Currently, all urban infrastructure including water, electricity, gas, waste, transportation, heating, and others have been built independently of one another. But to achieve real efficiency gains and make our cities more sustainable, we need to connect them so that they complement each other. Integrating and linking up energy, transport, water, waste, and ICT will create environmental and social impacts through resource efficiency, better air quality, better waste management, development of new skills in the population and other benefits.

Key aspects of the Energy Union agenda, such as energy efficiency, heating and cooling, renovation of the building sector, and installing renewables in individual homes depend on mayors across Europe. We, in turn, will do everything in our power to facilitate mayors' access to good projects and financing through project development assistance and aggregation of proposals. We hope that European citizens will take ownership of this transition and by 2030 European cities will be the most energy-efficient, well-connected, sustainable and prosperous, offering a quality of life that is second to none.

Europe is becoming the key actor in fighting climate change, but the largest CO2 emitters continue to be the US and China. What levers does the EU have to reach an agreement at the COP21 in Paris?

An ambitious climate policy is an integral part of the Energy Union. EU Member States agreed to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions EU-wide compared to 1990. This is an inspiring contribution to international climate negotiations and the European Union engages in climate diplomacy to convince other countries to join the EU's efforts. EU Foreign Ministers have endorsed a Climate Diplomacy Action Plan which was jointly developed by the European External Action Service and the Commission.

It focuses on raising climate change as a strategic priority in political dialogues, including at G7, G20, and UN meetings. In this respect, High Representative Federica Mogherini, Commissioner Cañete, other European officials and myself bring up the topic of climate change during our international travels. In the second week of July, I will be travelling to South Africa, Senegal, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to gather support for this binding agreement in Paris. We encourage and support all countries to submit their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) as soon as possible. We are also using development aid, climate finance, and trade agreements to assure our partners that the EU is committed to assisting developing countries that choose to contribute to international climate agreement.

With our extensive outreach efforts, we hope that the agreement will be ironed out before Paris with most INDCs submitted well in advance of the conference. Stakes are high, so we hope that the long-term sustainability of our planet will be a sufficient motivation for everyone to commit their resources to stop severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on all the world's people and ecosystems.

Sustainable transport and electric vehicles are popular topics these days, but we haven't seen one member of the EC in a Tesla car…. Could you mention a few innovative initiatives from the Commission for attempting to reduce its impact on the environment?

The transport sector also has a prominent place within the Energy Union. It represents more than 30% of final energy consumption in Europe. Together with buildings, it has the highest potential for efficiency gains and thus they are at the forefront of our energy efficiency efforts. Whilst a transition towards a decarbonised transport sector is our ultimate goal, we need to focus first on improving our CO2 emission standards for passenger cars, increasing fuel efficiency, reducing CO2 emissions for heavy-duty trucks and buses, and implementing smart traffic management.

Subsequently, in preparation for decarbonising the transport sector completely, our efforts will have to focus on promoting alternative fuels and deploying the necessary infrastructure (refuelling and recharging stations), because a wide-ranging adoption of electric vehicles by the public will depend on the availability and affordability of vehicles and infrastructure. Europe does need to speed up electrification of its car fleet and become a leader in electro-mobility and energy storage technologies.

Therefore, I am also promoting new urban mobility technologies including electric vehicles. Most recently, in March 2015, I drove an electric car during an event with the Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc. It was a great experience and I am convinced that the future of the transport sector lies in electric vehicles.

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