A systemic approach to the energy transition in Europe

There are many possible pathways towards a carbon-neutral future. Achieving it by 2050 is possible, but this requires urgent action.

This is the central conclusion of SAPEA's evidence review report on the energy transition, and the corresponding Scientific Opinion of the European Commission's Group of Chief Scientific Advisors.

But this is not just a technical challenge. To make the energy transition a reality, we need to solve a huge systemic problem, coordinating countless individual voluntary decisions on investment, consumption and behaviour across Europe.

This means transforming the entire European energy system — a change which will affect every part of our society and require huge investment during the transition. It must be done in a socially equitable way. And we already need to accelerate progress if we want to achieve the EU’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

More details

Many different policy options must be evaluated for their potential to deliver emission targets, as well as their economic efficiency and the contribution they make to maintaining social balance. Using these criteria, the best available evidence points to six main themes:

  • Technological diversity. Huge global investments in technology will be needed in the coming decades. But in general it is often difficult to predict the winning technologies of the future. So, rather than searching for a single silver bullet, Europe must develop and deploy a broad range of technologies while maintaining common, EU-wide goals. This is important not only to create a dynamic and flexible energy system, but also because different countries in Europe have different structures and needs.
  • Managing deep complexity. We must find new ways to balance supply and demand in a complex energy system that includes variable sources such as solar and wind power. Electrification, new infrastructure, energy efficiency, demand management, and innovative uses of data can all help to manage this complexity. For hard-to-decarbonise sectors, such as long distance transport and heavy industry, there are alternatives to direct electrification, such as green hydrogen fuels.
  • Governance and regulation. We need a strong carbon pricing mechanism as part of a mixture of regulatory measures and incentives. The existing European Emissions Trading System should be extended to all relevant sectors, including transport and heating/cooling, and political leaders should commit to very high carbon prices by the middle of the century, reflecting the full environmental impact of greenhouse gases. Revenues raised in this way should be used to support a fair transition, to ensure that no-one is left behind.
  • Behaviour and participation. Facilitating public behaviour and action at multiple levels is just as important as developing new technologies. In the energy system of the future, actions at individual, household, local and regional levels will play a central role in supporting energy generation and shifting patterns of use.
  • Global leadership. The EU is well placed to take a global lead in reducing emissions in a way that is economically efficient and socially equitable, while maintaining competitiveness. Europe must strengthen its diplomatic efforts to ensure that the Paris Agreement is followed by everyone, and to account for the emissions which are generated by goods imported into Europe. Reciprocal commitments from other countries will be more effective than overachieving in Europe alone.
  • Supply chain security. We must manage the global supply of materials needed to support clean energy technologies. Our dependency on imported fuels will decrease as we transition to green energy, but we must actively promote innovation, development and circular economy within Europe, or else we will end up with new dependencies on the imported materials that we need.

Debate and impact

Media coverageEventsAcademic impact
Energy transition and the EU hydrogen strategy
This STOA workshop will discuss the Scientific Opinion "A systemic approach to the energy transition in Europe" and the SAPEA report of the same title. It will also provide a first insights into the "Fit for 55" legislative package in preparation of its imminent presentation by the EC.

Read more
Science advice for energy policy: Who’s afraid of epistemic diversity?
What are the challenges in organising, generating and absorbing interdisciplinary science for policy? These key challenges of science advice, revealed by the pandemic, will be the focus of a session co-organised by SAPEA, the European Commission Joint Research Centre and the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors as part of the Fourth International Conference on Science Advice to Governments in Québec, Canada.

Read more
Engineering for net zero
Professor Peter Lund, chair of the SAPEA working group that wrote a recent report "A systemic approach to the energy transition in Europe" will present conclusions of the publication in a session entitled “Engineering for net zero” at the Euro-CASE Annual Conference.

Read more
  • Name. (Date). Title. Journal.

Cover of the energy report

Working group members

Carlos Alejaldre
Director
Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology Research, Spain
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Ronnie Belmans
Professor
KU Leuven, Belgium & EnergyVille
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Pantelis Capros
Professor
National Technical University of Athens, Greece
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Frank Carré
Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission, France
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Ottmar Edenhofer
Professor
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Technical University Berlin
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Ana Estanqueiro
National Laboratory for Ecology and Geology, Portugal
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Lidia Gawlik
Professor
Mineral and Energy Economy Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Poland
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Filip Johnsson
Professor
Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Andreja Kutnar
Professor
University of Primorska & InnoRenew CoE, Slovenia
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Andreas Löschel
Professor
University of Münster, Germany
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Peter Lund
co-chair (until 11 May 2021) and chair (after 11 May 2021)
Professor
Aalto University, Denmark
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Marianne Ryghaug
Professor
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Alessandra Sanson
National Research Council, Italy
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Sabine Schlacke
Professor
University of Münster, Germany
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Christoph Schmidt
co-chair (until 11 May 2021)
Professor
Leibniz Institute for Economic Research, Germany
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Benjamin Sovacool
Professor
University of Sussex, UK and Aarhus University, Denmark
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Goran Štrbac
Professor
Imperial College London, UK
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Diana Urge-Vorsatz
Professor
Central European University, Hungary
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Brian Vad Mathiesen
Professor
Aalborg University, Denmark
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
Richard van de Sanden
Professor
Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands
Personal profile
Declaration of interests
How do we find our experts?

Subscribe to our newsletter