Inching Forwards: European Climate Policy in the ‘90s

by Amber Rochette

Since the early 1990s, the EU has slowly emerged as an international leader in environmental governance, with leadership being most paradigmatic in the area of climate change [1]. The 3 main causes for concern during the ‘90s were: reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), promoting renewable energy sources (RES) and improving energy efficiency (EE) [1]. Like all issues related to the climate crisis, these issues are still present and continue to develop today. Effective climate policies were somewhat slow to develop, and member states found it hard to agree on several proposed ideas. This article will focus on the main developments in the ‘90s: Specific Actions for Vigorous Energy Efficiency (SAVE) programme, the ALTENER programme and some discussions that were had in the early ‘90s around CO2 and energy tax. 

Specific Actions for Vigorous Energy Efficiency (SAVE)

Most energy conservation policies that are seen in action today, originate from the SAVE programme that was created by the EU in 1991 [2, 3]. The programme was created to provide member states with a much needed spur for increased environmental protection. SAVE set out to promote energy efficiency by organizational means, the categories of action were: defining technical standards across the community in buildings, domestic appliances, and transport that were compatible with energy efficiency objectives, providing financial incentives for investing in energy efficiency where possible, and making information readily available to consumers to help change consumer habits to be more considerate for energy efficiency [4]. This version of SAVE ran from 1991-1995, and now finds itself the legal basis of what is Article 191 of the TFEU which refers to member states pursuing ‘prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources’ [5, 6].

What SAVE meant for consumers was common standards around household items such as hot water boilers, refrigerators, and freezers. A new labelling system was introduced to help inform consumers which products would consume less energy. This evolved into what can be recognized as a blue and white sticker with an energy rating on the side of most house-hold appliances today [7]. In 1993, the SAVE programme pushed for more reduction in GHG emissions- building certifications and insulation for new buildings were required. This evolved further into the EU energy performance of buildings directive which then evolved into the Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) that are publicly available to view for every property. 

Alternative Energy Resources (ALTENER)

As previously mentioned, the promotion of renewable energy resources was at the forefront of climate change policy in the ‘90s. ALTENER stands for Alternative Energy Resources, and this programme was introduced in 1993 to promote the use of renewable energy resources in the EU community [8]. The main actions under the ALTENER programme were: studies and technical evaluations, supporting community member initiatives in creating better infrastructures, creating an information network to ensure better coordination within the community, and assessing the advantages of the industrial exploitation of biomass for energy [9]. Between 1993-1996 there were many studies surrounding renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass. The ALTENER programme meant that communities were funded to launch pilot projects to train and educate Member States about the renewable energy resources that had been studied under the programme. These studies were integral to the development of the renewable energy strategy for the EU, and the government’s first green paper for a community strategy ‘Energy for the future: Renewable Sources of Energy’ [10]. As a result, renewable energy was expected to provide 8% of energy supply by 2005 and biofuels a share of 5% in the road fuel market [11]. It would be fair to say that at this juncture the ALTENER programme helped to bridge the gap between research and the physical application of renewable energy resources within the community. 

CO2 and Energy Tax Discussions

Although the reduction of GHG emissions was implemented into the SAVE programme, many of the conversations held in the 90’s were held around tackling GHG emissions. Some lofty proposals were made in 1992 surrounding CO2 and energy tax but an agreement was never met [12]. This is where most of the disagreements between member states arose, perhaps this could be due to the different standards across the member states in terms of energy efficiency and what may work best for them. Despite this, there were monitoring systems put into place to asses the development of national policy programmes on the reduction of GHG emissions, but with no quantified targets in in place the policy implementation could be designed by the member states themselves leaving room for external factors, such as the ‘dash for gas’, to effect the targets and how they were monitored instead of creating effective climate change policies to move forward with. 

Despite many lofty goals put into place with no concrete agreements, the 90’s still saw the EU give rise to the first instruments on renewable energies and energy efficiency that we are still reaping the benefits from today. The SAVE and ALTENER programmes were the foundations for many widely recognized standards today, such as appliance energy ratings and EPC certificates. The rhetoric leadership of the EU started to become recognized as world leaders in climate policy and the momentum picked up from the ‘90s. 

Amber is studying for a masters in Environmental Law and Sustainable Development. As well as EU law, her research interests lie in the fashion industry, and whether the legal system in the UK is robust enough to compel the industry into becoming net-zero in line with the governments 2050 targets. 


[1] Sebastian Oberthür & Claire Roche Kelly (2008), ‘EU Leadership in International Climate Policy: Achievements and Challenges’, The International Spectator, 43:3, 35-50, DOI: 10.1080/03932720802280594 (last accessed 16/07/21)
[2] Richard Dunlap (2014), Sustainable Energy, 1st edn, ISBN: 978-1-113-10868-9 (last accessed 16/07/21)
[3] EU Council Decision 91/565, OJ 199 L 307/34, <> (last accessed 16/07/21)
[4] ‘SAVE Programme: for greater energy efficiency in the community’, European Commission <> (last accessed 16/07/2021)
[5] Edwin Woerdman, Martha Roggenkamp, Marijn Holwerda (2015), 1st end, ISBN: 978-1-78347-058-7 (last accessed 16/07/21)
[6] Article 191 TFEU Official Journal 115 , 09/05/2008 P. 0132 – 0133 (last accessed 16/07/21)
[7] Directive 2010/30 on Energy Efficiency Labelling <> (last accessed 16/07/21)
[8] ‘Historical Concepts of EU’, European Union World <> (last accessed 16/07/2021)
[9] The ALTENER Programme: results and achievements, European Commission < > (last accessed 16/07/2021)
[10]  Commission of the European Communities, ‘Energy For The Future: Renewable Energy Sources’ (1996) Green Paper for the Community Strategy COM(96) 576 Final <> (last accessed 16/07/21)
[11] Andrew Jordan and Tim Rayner. “The evolution of climate policy in the European Union: an historical overview”, in Climate Change Policy in the European Union (2010) DOI:, (last accessed 16/07/21)[12] Sebastian Oberthür and Marc Pallemaerts. “The EU’s Internal and External Climate Policies: an Historical Overview” (2010) ISBN: 9789054876076
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