Frans Timmermans
Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission for the Green Deal, says hydrogen is the only possible replacement for the gas used by heavy industry © John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

The EU is preparing to loosen its environmental regulations as it seeks to replace Russian fossil fuels with renewable energy and imported hydrogen power.

Companies in the bloc would be allowed to build wind and solar projects without the need for an environmental impact assessment, according to draft proposals obtained by the Financial Times that call for the fast-track permitting of renewable projects in designated “go-to” areas.

The EU’s 27 member states, which control energy policy, would be obliged to earmark a sufficient number of these areas to meet the bloc’s renewable energy targets. A “strategic” impact assessment would be needed before an area was selected.

“Lengthy and complex administrative procedures are a key barrier for investments in renewables and their related infrastructure,” according to the draft. The plans could “result in the occasional killing or disturbance of birds and other protected species”, it added.

Russia’s war in Ukraine has spurred the EU to speed up its adoption of alternatives to fossil fuel, which it has been pursuing as part of its Green Deal climate goal to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. Last year the bloc also unveiled a set of measures designed to hit a medium-term target of cutting emissions by 55 per cent by 2030.

Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission for the Green Deal, said on Tuesday that imported hydrogen was the only possible replacement for the gas used by Europe’s heavy industry, much of which is sourced from Russia.

“It’s essential not just to reduce our carbon footprint, it’s essential to keep our economy competitive. We need a new energy source for difficult to abate sectors. And hydrogen is that energy source,” he said.

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He also told reporters that Brussels would go “way beyond” its ambition of 40 gigawatts of green hydrogen capacity by 2030.

The EU has agreed to generate 40 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 but the document, to be published next week, could set a higher target. It called for a 30 per cent increase in the rate of deployment of green energy projects.

“In view of the unprecedented geopolitical situation created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the high energy prices, there is a clear need for co-ordinated and urgent action to accelerate the deployment of renewable energy,” the document said.

Brussels is debating a ban on oil imports from Russia within six months and promised to end Russian gas use by the end of the year. Russian gas accounts for more than 40 per cent of consumption in the bloc.

Charles Moore, European programme lead for the climate think-tank Ember, said the EU needed to push much further ahead with the building of renewable energy infrastructure if it was serious about replacing fossil fuels.

The commission has also proposed strict criteria for green hydrogen and how it is created via electrolysis, according to a separate draft seen by the FT.

The hydrogen would only qualify as renewable if during its production it does not increase the use of electricity generated from fossil fuels and if it returned as much renewable electricity to the grid as it used up.

Timmermans was speaking on a trip to Rotterdam, where he backed plans by the Dutch port and its partners to produce and import 4.6 megatonnes of hydrogen annually by 2030.

The plans were dependent on green hydrogen receiving similar subsidies and incentives as renewable energy, according to the port authorities. Timmermans said he would support them, adding: “It’s clear that we need to make sure that hydrogen is as competitive as possible.”

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