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
  • 15 min: SAPEA: Iki 2050 m. įmanoma pasiekti neutralią anglies dioksido emisiją Skaitykite daugiau (8 August 2021)
  • 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.

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    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.

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