The European Commission's decision to opt for a voluntary approach at first came after Germany objected to mandatory targets. But the move brought scorn from environmentalists who contend voluntary measures won't reduce European energy consumption 20 percent by 2020.
The new directive was rolled out Wednesday in Brussels by EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger.
He said that while the EU's strategy for tackling climate change via slashing greenhouse emissions by 20 percent and deriving 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources were on target, its corresponding goal of improving energy efficiency wasn't.
Thus, Oettinger said, a new energy efficiency directive was being issued. Among its provisions is a demand that all EU member countries establish energy-saving plans and that energy suppliers reduce sales volumes by 1.5 percent annually through encouraging conservation among their consumers.
Utilities could accomplish this, for example, by helping homeowners improve the efficiency of heating systems, installing double-glazed windows and insulating roofs.
The directive also calls for governments to renovate at least 3 percent of their public buildings every year and for large companies to undergo audits identifying ways to reduce consumption.
EU governments must approve the measures, which will become part "of a long-term vision for transforming Europe into a low-carbon but competitive economy."
But, in a change from earlier drafts of the directive, Oettinger said the measures would be voluntary until 2014, when the commission would revisit the progress toward energy efficiency and, if necessary, set "mandatory national targets" at that time.
"I think that our two-stage strategy is fair," Oettinger said Wednesday. "Over the next two years, we want to have voluntary implementation, but obviously we can't just wait another five, six or seven years and then say in 2019 that we've really missed our target."
The softer approach was instituted after objections from Germany, as well as from business interests, who were concerned they would affect their economic competitiveness, the EUobserver reported.
German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler has criticized the goals as prohibitively costly, contending the call for modernizing public buildings alone would set taxpayers back $57 billion.
The European Chambers of Commerce also criticized the measures, even though they weren't made immediately mandatory.
"As it has been rightly decided not to propose binding energy efficiency targets for the time being, proposing mandatory measures would be inconsistent with this approach and would create unnecessary administrative burdens," Arnaldo Abruzzini, the group's secretary-general, said in a statement.
Instead, Abruzzini said the EU should focus on "flexible incentives, targeted information, further education of energy consumers and sharing of best practices among member states."
The opposite reaction came from environmentalists and Green Party members of the European Parliament, who blasted the delay of binding energy efficiency measures as a loophole that will prevent reaching the goal of a 20 percent reduction in consumption.
Brook Riley, an energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels, said the move shows the EU isn't serious about reaching the mark.
"Frankly, the European Commission is fooling itself if it believes the energy efficiency directive will deliver the 20 percent savings target," he said. "Its own internal analyses show that only a binding target will suffice.
"Instead of showing leadership, the European Commission is giving in to industry scaremongering and pandering to the lack of understanding among national governments. This directive is set up to fail."