Good news for EU greenhouse gas emissions

With the Paris climate COP about to begin, there is some hope amongst all the fears. The European Union has committed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% by 2020 and it seems progress is surprisingly good. This is according to figures from the European Commission’s 2015 report on “Greenhouse Gas Emission Savings” in the most recent recorded period of 2009-2012.

GHG emissions in the EU in 1990 were 5626.3 Mt CO2eq. They fell in 2009 to 4642 Mt CO2eq then rose again after the worst of the recession. However the latest figures for 2012 show a further decrease despite the recovering economy, with emissions reaching 4546 Mt CO2eq: very close to the 2020 target. In fact, total EU emissions are projected to be 22.2% lower in 2020 compared with 1990 – exceeding the target.

Only eight Member States (Ireland, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Malta, Austria, Portugal and Slovenia) increased their GHG emissions between 1990 and 2012. Germany, the United Kingdom, Romania, France and Poland were the five best performing countries in terms of reducing their GHG emissions during that period. Together, they accounted for almost 71% (767 Mt CO2eq) of the total GHG emissions reduction

Much of this reduction, two-thirds to be exact, came from the widespread introduction of renewables, especially wind and solar power. Renewables used for heating and cooling achieved 31% of the savings and transport 5%. Most transport renewables came from bio-fuels replacing petrol and diesel rather than an increase in electric transportation. Germany led the renewable energy emissions savings* (144.5 Mt CO2eq), followed by Sweden (98 Mt CO2eq), France (82.4 Mt CO2eq), Italy (70.94 Mt CO2eq) and Spain (56.86 Mt CO2eq). With the price of renewable falling, there is likely to be continuing growth of capacity and further renewable GHG savings in future. The current economic benefits of these GHG emission savings due to renewable energy use varied from 74.1 billion in 2009 to 47.1 billion in 2012.

There are always reservations to consider with positive results such as this. For example biofuels for transport can be produced very unsustainably and some emissions reductions may simply be due to displacement from offshoring manufacturing and industry elsewhere. However there is still space for optimism as the UNFCC statement on the figures argued “This is a powerful demonstration that climate change agreements not only work, but can drive even higher ambition over time”.

The knowledge that the EU is likely to exceed its target of a 20% reduction of all emissions on 1990 levels by 2020 has led ministers to an even more ambitious goal: total reductions of 40% by 2030. For 2050, EU leaders have endorsed the objective of reducing Europe’s GHG emissions by 80-95% compared with 1990 levels.

And it seems confidence-fuelled ambition for higher targets is not just confined to the EU. The UNFCC continued “The successful completion of the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period can serve as a beacon for governments as they work towards a new, universal climate change agreement in Paris.”

Targets are often overused in climate change mitigation and are often missed. This can make them seem meaningless and force many to argue that concrete local policy, rather than distant international targets, is the way forward for change. But these results show that at times, targets do translate into successful policy and change.

The success story of these new EU figures juxta poses the standard pessimism of climate narratives with evidence that progress can be made, targets can be met and exceeded and the future can be changed. Hopefully, the Paris COP will also juxta pose against the previous failed COPs by not only achieving something, but something meaningful.


* Germany had the highest GHG emissions reduction during this period however more recently (between 2009 and 2012) Germanys emissions increased again. This is potentially due to the closure of their low-carbon nuclear power plants. Additionally, despite their reductions, they still have the highest emissions of any member state.


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