The EU’s challenge with renewable energy expansion: What is the way forward?

Jonas Schoenefeld, Michèle Knodt |

The EU is facing a key challenge in climate and energy governance. It has agreed to address climate change under the Paris Agreement, and put forward increasingly ambitious policy targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050. However, it is increasingly struggling to fulfil them. The European Green Deal and the proposed European Climate Law reinforce the EU’s goal to achieve “net zero” emissions by 2050, meaning that the EU will emit no more greenhouse gases than it removes from the air (for example through reforestation).

Deploying renewable energy technologies is a key way to reduce emissions, but the EU’s own Environment Agency warned in late 2019 that current policy efforts are insufficient to reach the 2030 and the 2050 (net zero) emissions targets.

How is the EU seeking to address this challenge of having EU-level targets without being on a path to achieve them? In a new open access paper, recently published in the journal West European Politics, we argue that the EU’s challenge has emerged from legislative change and the way in which the Member States contribute to achieving the EU’s overall renewable energy targets.

The EU’s 2020 Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC) requires that the Member States must collectively achieve 20% of their energy consumption from renewables by 2020. It also sets binding targets for each Member State (depending on the existing level of renewables, and economic capabilities).

By contrast, while the new 2030 Renewables Directive (2018/2001) demands that the Member States must collectively reach 32% renewables by 2030, it no longer allocates targets to individual countries. This change emerged because of growing Member State dissent on the extent to which renewable energy should be pursued and an increased weariness of giving the EU institutions too much control.

The 2030 approach thus generates a difficult challenge. How can EU-level institutions such as the European Commission ensure that the EU as a whole will reach its renewable energy target and therefore live up to its international commitments without individual Member State targets?

In our new paper, we argue that the EU has turned to “harder soft governance” (HSG) in order to address this problem (see Ringel & Knodt, 2018). Late in the negotiations of the new Energy Union, a formula appeared in the annex (II) of the new regulation (2018/1999), which allows the Commission to calculate indicative Member State renewable energy targets (even though these targets have no legal force, meaning that courts cannot force the Member States to attain them).

At the same time, Member States must periodically submit National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to the Commission under the new Energy Union, detailing how they will proceed in the areas of energy and climate change policy. If the Commission detects “ambition gaps” (i.e., insufficient renewable energy targets) or “delivery gaps” (i.e., insufficient implementation), it can issue recommendations and potentially take corrective action (Knodt, 2019). In addition, our analysis revealed that the high-level State of the Energy Union reports contain a growing amount of information on renewable energy, another source of public pressure on the Member States.

What explains these developments towards HSG? We argue that EU ambitions to lead the way internationally coupled with increasing disunity among the Member States (because of domestic conflicts over renewables in some of them) has fostered the emergence of HSG. In this process, the Commission’s entrepreneurial efforts to insert harder elements are particularly noteworthy. At the same time, the emerging HSG also reflects ambivalence among the Member States, with increasingly assertive and sceptical positions from the Visegrad Group (led by Poland) while other Member States such as Germany or Denmark argued for more renewable energy expansion.

It is still early days, but we have been able to demonstrate the rise of HSG through an analysis of its changing renewable energy legislation and related governance tools. We have also begun to explain HSG’s origins in the field of renewable energy policy in the EU, but it is also clear that the ultimate effects of this approach remain to be studied in the future. These new governance tools matter: both the EU’s international credibility, and the future sustainability of natural systems depend on the continued growth of renewable energy in Europe.


Ringel, Marc, and Michèle Knodt (2018). ‘The Governance of the European Energy Union: Efficiency, Effectiveness and Acceptance of the Winter Package 2016’, Energy Policy, 112, 209–20.

Knodt, Michèle (2019). ‘Multilevel Coordination in EU Energy Policy: A New Type of “harder” Soft Governance?’, in Nathalie Behnke, Jörg Broschek, and Jared Sonnicksen (eds.), Configurations, Dynamics and Mechanisms of Multilevel Governance. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 173–91.

Schoenefeld, J. J., & Knodt, M. (2020). Softening the surface but hardening the core? governing renewable energy in the EU. West European Politics, doi:

This blog post has also been published on the websites of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and COST Project ENTER.