Today the EU decision makers are meeting in Latvia, the holder of the EU presidency, to kick off the debate on how to create the Energy Union. The strengths and vulnerabilities of the host of the meeting should serve as a guideline to its high-level participants. Latvia is a straightforward example of how a common vision for Europe’s energy system can be best conveyed through renewable energy and energy savings.

The notion of the Energy Union has initially been introduced in order to tackle Europe’s dependence on imports of fossil fuels. Today, the EU imports more than half of the energy it consumes, with Russia accounting for the largest share. Energy security is a concern for all Member States, but Latvia is definitely one of the most vulnerable ones. The country remains isolated from the EU energy networks and is highly dependent on imports of Russian gas and oil.

These imports are currently used for transport, industry and heating, the latter especially in urban areas. At the same time, there is a huge potential to reduce the energy use. This is particularly true for households, because houses are poorly insulated. Moreover, Latvia was also one of the first to suffer from the full consequences of the global economic crisis. The recession together with low energy efficiency lead to the fact that every fifth Latvian citizen is unable to keep home warm enough in the winter.

It is clear that if Latvia wants to become more energy independent, while at the same time making energy services affordable for all citizens, it must strive to use energy in a much more efficient way. It also must create better conditions for local renewable energy production. To a large extent it can replace imported gas by wind and biomass. First, the Baltic Sea offers huge offshore wind power potential and second, more than half of the country’s territory is covered by forest.

So far Latvia’s government has not been successful in developing renewable energy. The Renewable Energy Act can serve as an example of its reluctance: the bill has been discussed since 2010, but its adoption has been constantly postponed. Latest governmental discussions on the energy dependence have been mostly focused on finding alternative foreign energy suppliers, rather than promotion of locally-produced renewables and energy efficiency.

Energy efficiency and renewable sources of energy must be the priority steps to reduce dependency on Russian gas in each and every part of Europe. The higher the ambition, the better. European Commission analysis predicts that with a 27% energy efficiency target, we can reduce gas imports by 16% by 2030. However, achieving a 40% efficiency target would lead to 40% cuts in gas imports.

Moreover, Europe is already saving €30bn a year by replacing imported fossil fuels with locally produced renewable energy. Through renewable energy sources, we invest the money here in Europe instead of sending it to Russia and other foreign states. Energy security is best served by renewable energy being produced in as many places as possible, including in small-scale, citizen-owned installations.

The political support that currently exists for an Energy Union must be capitalized in the best possible way. It needs to be expressed in ambitious policies, which will put energy savings first, while striking the right balance between large-scale renewable energy generation and transmission projects, and initiatives that stimulate a smart and citizens-owned renewable energy system. This will also make the Energy Union relevant to European citizens, who are still suffering from the economic downturn.

Last, but not least the Energy Union must fully express the EU’s commitment to tackle climate change. We have to make sure that the current, rather vague concept of the Energy Union will not become a stand-in for clear and precise legislation. In the absence of national binding targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy for 2030, we need a specific and thorough governance structure. It is the bare minimum to meet and surpass the EU’s agreed 2030 climate targets.

We urge the EU leaders to place renewable energy and energy savings at the core of every dimension of the Energy Union. Hopefully their visit to Latvia will inspire them to choose the right pathway of the much needed energy transition.

By Janis Brizga, Head of the Board of the Latvian NGO Green Liberty (member of CAN Europe) and Wendel Trio, Director of CAN Europe