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EU isn’t doing enough to boost renewable energy in rural areas – new Court of Auditors report finds

The EU should do more to exploit the synergies between its policies on renewable energy sources and rural development, a new report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) finds. The auditors examined the link between renewable energy and rural development and concluded that while there were potential synergies, as yet these remained mostly unrealised. EU’s renewable energy policy is not explicit enough in establishing the conditions for linking renewable energy to rural development.

Several EU and national funding programmes are available to incentivise the production and use of renewable energy. According to a study by the energy consultancy Ecofys, EUR 99 billion of public money was paid in support for the EU energy sector in 2012, mainly from national budgets, of which EUR 40 billion was for renewable energy.

Like agriculture, forestry is a rural activity. A recent European Court of Auditors (ECA) report finds that EU renewable energy policy could be more explicit in establishing the conditions for linking renewable energy successfully to rural development. The renewable energy policy framework currently under discussion has the potential to improve the situation.

One EU source of funding is the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). However, a recent report carried out by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) found that there are potential synergies between renewable energy policy and funds designated to facilitate sustainable development, but that these synergies remain mostly unrealised.

The Special Report No 5/2018 “Renewable energy for sustainable rural development: significant potential synergies, but mostly unrealised” highlights that in a longer-term perspective (2050), biofuel demand “is projected to increase significantly due to the need to decarbonize the transport sector.” It said the EU should encourage all energy initiatives beneficial for the development of rural areas.

The auditors noted that the European Commission (EC) was unable to provide comprehensive up-to-date information on financial support for renewable energy, both overall and under the EAFRD.

Funding for rural development can play a role in achieving the EU and national renewable energy targets, but rural areas should benefit where support for renewable energy has come from rural development funds. The European Commission has not provided sufficient clarification or guidance on this, said Samo Jereb, the Member of the European Court of Auditors responsible for the report.

The auditors visited five Member States: Bulgaria, France (Basse-Normandie), Italy (Tuscany), Lithuania and Austria. They found that most of the Member States visited did not use the Rural Development funds to prioritise renewable energy projects, which also had the potential to contribute to sustainable rural development.

Whilst many projects visited did have positive economic and environmental results, Member States also funded projects that had an economic benefit for the project owners but had little further positive impact on rural areas.

Overall, EU renewable energy policy could be more explicit in establishing the conditions for linking renewable energy successfully to rural development. The renewable energy policy framework currently under discussion has the potential to improve the situation, say the auditors.

But neither the current nor the proposed sustainability framework for bioenergy provide an adequate basis for protecting rural areas sufficiently against environmental and socio-economic risks, nor for maximising potential further sustainable development.

The auditors make the following recommendations:

  • The Commission and the Member States should take the needs of rural areas into account when designing future renewable energy policy
  • The Commission, the European Parliament and the Council should design future bioenergy policy to better safeguard against the unsustainable sourcing of biomass for energy

In addition, the Commission should:

  • specify the purpose and role of rural development support for investments in renewables;
  • require the Member States to provide pertinent information on renewables programme achievements in their 2019 implementation reports;
  • reinforce with the Member States the need to give support only to viable renewable energy projects with a clear benefit for sustainable rural development – particularly in the case of support from the EAFRD.

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