The need to combat climate change, which occupies a prominent place in the policies of the European Union, has been joined by the urgency of the community economy to disengage from Russian fuels. In both cases, the solution that has been drawn up is clear: the rapid and massive implementation of renewable energies in order to leave behind coal, gas and oil, the main causes of global warming. But problems are arising when it comes to putting this theory into practice, that is, when renewable projects should be launched. The blockade is not for technological or cost reasons —they are already mature and are the cheapest source of electricity—, but because of the bureaucratic jam and in some cases because of the opposition of some administrations and groups to solar and wind plants.
For the sake of greater agility, the European Parliament has endorsed this Wednesday the proposal of the European Commission to simplify these procedures; including, yes, some specific safeguards in protected areas of the Natura 2000 Network, the community system for the preservation of areas of greatest environmental interest. The Community Executive, now with the support of the European Parliament, thus seeks to make the processing of some projects more flexible at the cost of simplifying environmental permits, something that has put environmental groups on alert.
The approval of the European Parliament is an important step in a trilateral negotiation —the third leg is the governments— which, if there are no setbacks, will conclude in the first quarter of next year. The starting proposal was launched in November by the European Commission, this Wednesday the European Parliament —the only community institution directly elected by the citizens— has set its position, and the Twenty-seven still need to do the same in their representative body: the European Council . That negotiation should be closed later, illuminating the definitive text that seeks to break the bureaucratic blockade with which some projects find themselves and which has set off alarm bells in many environmental groups.
Friends of the Earth, Ecologists in Action, Greenpeace, SEO/BirdLife and WWF, the five main conservation organizations with a presence in Spain, reject that with “the excuse of accelerating the deployment of renewable energy, the key directives for conservation are modified of the nature”. “It is essential that policies to combat climate change and biodiversity loss go hand in hand,” they warn.
One of the most controversial points —and which received the go-ahead from Parliament this Wednesday— is the consideration of all renewable energy installation projects as “of superior public interest”, which makes it possible to avoid part of the environmental processing and benefit “ of a simplified evaluation. Although it is established that this declaration of superior public interest cannot be granted “when there is clear evidence that these projects have significant adverse effects on the environment that cannot be mitigated or compensated”, there is a risk that it will fall down the sleeve wide”, according to the Spanish parliamentarian Nicolás González Casares.
The Commission’s proposal has, in the opinion of the Social Democrat MEP, some positive points, such as the acceleration of the processing for self-consumption (the maximum of positive administrative silence will be applied when the Town Halls or the regions delay in giving their approval to a installation of this type), the repowering of wind turbines (which will allow the oldest wind farms to increase their generation without occupying more land), the obligation that the States have a zoning to develop the projects and the impulse that they want to give in general to clean energy. The fears, however, center on the reduction of the environmental procedure to expedite the solar and wind farms.
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“The protection of biodiversity provided by the directives must be maintained,” explained the third vice president of the Spanish Government and minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, on Monday. One of the red lines that she marked were, precisely, the spaces included in the Natura 2000 Network, the European system of biodiversity conservation areas. “It is true that we have to have an agile system, which allows us to weigh a boost to renewables in a simple way, while maintaining environmental protection in those spaces that have deserved that qualification.”
The proposal of the Community Executive established that renewable projects cannot be considered “of superior public interest” when they are within the Nature Network, “with the exception of artificial and built surfaces located in those areas, such as roofs, parking areas or transport infrastructures”. However, an amendment presented by the popular Europeans did open the door to bypass this veto if “appropriate measures to mitigate and enhance biodiversity” were adopted. Finally, that amendment has not gone ahead thanks to the votes of the Greens and the Socialists.
What has not been achieved is that Parliament approves that the consideration of “superior public interest” of all renewable projects is only for the period until 2030: it has ended up endorsing the proposal of the European Commission, which maintains that this consideration, which allows faster processing, even until “climate neutrality” is achieved, something that -according to EU plans- will occur in the middle of this century.
Once the reform of the European renewable energy directives is approved, the States would have three months to adapt their national legislation to declare the projects of “higher public interest”, as proposed by the Commission and approved this Wednesday in Strasbourg.
However, the governments of the Twenty-seven still need to finish establishing their position. And there, as almost always, there are as many sensitivities as the number of countries. Some openly advocate having more freedom when selecting the areas where renewable energy projects will be installed.
“We are working on an important change to identify those areas in which the implementation is processed through a much more expeditious procedure,” Ribera abounded this week. “It is a good idea, but we must finish defining the terms in which this occurs and, where appropriate, the way in which local entities and autonomous communities participate,” added Ribera.
In the text of the Commission endorsed this Wednesday by the European Parliament, these areas are called conducive or acceleration zones for renewables and must be designated by each State. The projects that are developed within these terrestrial and marine areas will be exempt from having to process the environmental impact assessment, which considerably shortens the procedures. The Brussels proposal explicitly established that biomass power plants could not benefit from the advantages of being in favorable areas, but an amendment that opens the door to this technology, now questioned by the Commission, has gone ahead in the Strasbourg vote.
The proposal that comes out of Parliament also establishes that in the areas of acceleration of renewables the maximum term to approve new installations will be nine months (compared to the 12 proposed by the Commission). And if the competent authority does not respond within the established period, the permit or application would be considered approved, following the principle of positive silence. Outside of those areas, the process should not exceed 18 months, compared to two years in the Brussels proposal.
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