Renewable energies in the Mediterranean: from the ambition of the Desertec project to the actual need for a real Euro-Mediterranean Green Deal.

"With only 0.3% of the Sahara's surface area, the whole of Europe can be supplied with energy".
Renewable energies
Renewable energies © Photo by Jem Sanchez // Pexels

It was under this premise that one of the most ambitious projects ever conceived to supply three continents with clean energy was born in 2003: the Desertec project, which aimed to create a network of renewable energy production centres, mainly concentrated solar energy, between Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, with the objective of producing enough electricity to cover a large part of the demand of the countries in the region, as well as 15% of European electricity in 2050.

This ambitious project is still awaiting feasibility studies and a real political will on the part of the countries in the region to carry out a project of this magnitude.

The energy issue in the Mediterranean is crucial to achieve sustainable development in the countries of the region and to curb the harmful consequences of climate change, which affects this region much more than the global average. While the global average air temperature is about 1.1°C higher than in pre-industrial times, temperatures in the Mediterranean are 1.5°C higher. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts even higher temperatures in the region of 2-3°C by 2050 and 3-5°C by 2100.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean, located at the crossroads of three continents, account for almost 7% of the world's population and 8% of the world's primary energy consumption. By 2040, these figures are expected to continue to grow, under the double effect of strong demographic growth (105 million more inhabitants compared to 2013) and economic growth (+2.3% per year, forecasts before Covid).

Solar energy
Solar energy © Pexels & Pixabay

The Mediterranean energy scenario: increasing demand in the South, decreasing demand in the North

In terms of energy consumption, in 2015 (available data), the Mediterranean countries accounted for 7% of global primary energy demand, or more than 955 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Northern Mediterranean countries account for almost two-thirds of total energy demand in the region, while Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries consume around 19% and 18% respectively.

Based on past trends and unconditional commitments in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement (reference scenario), aggregate energy demand in the region will increase by around 40% by 2040.

On the other hand, if countries meet all their commitments in their NDCs (proactive scenario), energy demand will increase by 17% (Mediterranean Energy Observatory OME, 2018). The increase in energy demand should be driven by the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries (SEMC), whose demand would double in a baseline scenario. On the other hand, the North should reduce its energy demand.

Examination of the type of fuel that will be consumed in the coming decades shows that fossil fuels are clearly expected to continue to dominate energy demand, in the case of the baseline scenario (77%) and the proactive scenario (67%) (OME, 2018). Energy demand will mainly come from transport and electricity production.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions in the region, the main one from the energy sector is CO2. Mediterranean countries are responsible for about 6% of the world's CO2 emissions, 45% of the northern Mediterranean countries and 55% of the southern countries (OME, 2018).

Fossil fuels
Fossil fuels © Photo by Vitaly Vlasov // Pexels

Renewable energies in the Mediterranean: an unbalanced balance between North and South

Until the early 2000s, renewable energy technologies were virtually absent in the Mediterranean region, with the exception of hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy. Between 2000 and 2015, non-hydro renewable energy production more than doubled. Renewable energy technologies are now predominantly present in the electricity sector, and capacity is growing faster than natural gas. Renewables now account for 107 Mtoe, or 11% of total energy supply in the Mediterranean.

About 80% of the region's renewable energy supply is in the Northern rim countries (84 Mtoe), with the remaining 23 Mtoe mainly in Turkey (15 Mtoe) (OME, 2018).

Even so, it is in the South that the greatest potential in terms of renewable energy, in particular solar energy, is located. In 2040, the share of renewables would be 34% of total energy production according to the OME reference scenario and 52% according to the proactive scenario, with Northern Mediterranean countries largely leading in both scenarios (OME, 2018).

In any case, neither scenario decarbonises energy consumption in the Mediterranean or meets the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Mediterranean sea
Mediterranean sea © Photo by Adam Grabek // Pexels

The need for a Mediterranean or Euro-Mediterranean Green Deal proper

It is essential for the countries of the region to adopt the regulatory measures necessary to achieve ambitious targets for the deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency in order to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, to respect the proactive scenario of the OME (which however does not respond to the Paris Agreement) the region should invest more than €3.3 trillion in the energy system, of which 40% for energy efficiency measures and 34% for energy production (OME, 2018).

A colossal investment for the countries of the Mediterranean South whose economies have been severely weakened by the pandemic, 25 years after the start of the Barcelona Process, the gap between the two shores of the Mediterranean is still present also in the field of clean energy.

It is urgent to take measures against climate change from a macro-regional and multilateral perspective, Europe, both the countries of the South and the North, must join forces with the South and East Mediterranean to achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal, a green pact that must be extended to the Euro-Mediterranean area if we really want to achieve the objectives set at the Paris summit or at the current Cop26 being held these days in Glasgow.

A Euro-Mediterranean Green Deal with the focus on increasing investment in environmentally friendly technologies on both sides of the Mediterranean, recovering a little of the spirit of the initial Desertec project.