Is Europe on track with its own climate action commitments?
28 October 2020, by Dr. Johannes Jarke-Neuert
Photo: Unsplash/Martin Krchnacek
With the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework the European Union (EU) sets itself a binding target to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Consistent with the Paris Agreement objective to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, the EU aims to be climate-neutral (net-zero GHG emissions, to be explained below) by 2050 – a target to be elevated into legally binding status with the recently proposed European Climate Law.
What do those goals really mean in absolute terms, and are we anywhere close to "on track" with the current trend of emissions?
That is, the GHG emissions in the EU classified by technical processes, which are recorded in GHG emission inventories submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The 2030 target
The bars in the figure below depict total GHG emissions in the EU-27, including international transport, for the years 1990 through 2018 (the latest data available) in billion tons of CO2-equivalents.
The solid line shows the linear trend over this period: emissions decreased from 5.01 billion tons in the reference year 1990 to 4.03 billion tons in 2018, or by 35.1 million tons per year (that's the slope of the line).
The long-dashed line represents the 40 percent Climate and Energy Framework target for 2030. A 40 percent cut is 2,005.4 million tons in absolute terms, that is an average cut of 50.1 million tons per year (again, that is the slope of the line).
A simple definition of "on track" is that the solid line is not flatter than the long-dashed line.
Apparently, we are way off track. There is already a huge gap between the solid and the long-dashed lines, and that gap is growing given the current trend of emissions. Extrapolating this trend yields a total cut of 1,402.8 million tons in 2030 relative to 1990, leaving 3.61 billion tons. That is about 600 million tons off target (3.01 billion tons). Using the trend for the four years after the adoption of the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework (October 2014), drawn by the short-dashed line, shows that the "short time trend" looks even worse.
Sure, this definition of "on track" is simplistic. It ignores all those policies and technologies that will steepen the trend in the remaining decade. Fair enough, but the purpose of this post is precisely a blunt stock-taking that reveals where we are at, not where we guess or wish to be. What does the European Commission's recent proposal mean against this background, to raise the 2030 target to 55 percent (which refers to "net" emissions, as explained below)?
The 2050 target
The 2050 target is tricky, because it is defined in terms of "net" emissions. What does this actually mean? Plainly, it is GHGs emitted into the atmosphere ("gross” emissions, the ones considered above) less GHGs taken out of the atmosphere and stored anywhere else, so-called "negative emissions". Examples are planting trees (they use CO2 for photosynthesis) or pumping it into the ground ("carbon capture and storage"). So "net-zero" emissions is not zero emissions, but that GHGs emitted into the atmosphere and GHGs taken out of the atmosphere balance out.
Regarding climate action pledges and targets, negative emissions could widen the scope for guesswork and wishful thinking even further. Given the trends identified above, let us take stock bluntly by gauging the negative emissions that are implicit in the 2050 "net-zero" target.
I do so by just extrapolating the solid and the long-dashed lines into 2050. We already know that the long-dashed line, corresponding to the 2030 target, is the optimistic scenario regarding the path of "gross" emissions, because we are already behind the target. The solid trend line represents the more pessimistic scenario, but mind that that's the track we are currently on.
In the optimistic scenario, we assume that the EU meets the 2030 target (3.01 billion tons) and just continues to cut 50.1 million tons per year from 2030 onwards up to 2050. Then we get a 1,002 million tons cut over that 20-year period. It follows that in 2050 still two billion tons will be emitted. That is quite a lot. And that was the optimistic path. If we continue with the current pace of cutting 35.1 million tons per year, close to three billion tons will be left in 2050.
This means that the European Commission implicitly expects some kind of miracle in the order of about two to three billion tons of negative emissions per year by 2050. I have no idea where this is supposed to come from. Scientific advisors to the Commission have neither. Therefore it is still necessary to reduce gross emissions, and to do so much faster than before. A recent study by the German Federal Environment Agency shows what it means: The measures recently adopted by the German government, including a coal phase-out, expansion of renewable energies and a national CO2 price, is not even enough to achieve the target for 2030.