EU trends for greenhouse gas emissions

Can you reduce greeenhouse gas emissions unintentionally? The Nitrates Directive was mainly adopted to protect waters from nitrate pollution, but the changed fertilizing practises that came out of it also caused a drop in nitrous oxide emitted into the atmosphere. Photo: Mark Robinson/Creative Commons

Macro-economic factors have been the biggest influence on changes in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU over the past two decades. To achieve the needed reduction of 80-95 per cent by 2050 impact from policy must increase.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has studied the underpinning drivers and the influence of policy on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU between 1990 and 2008. Over this period emissions dropped by 11.1 per cent, most of the change occurring in the 1990s. There was an increase between 1999 and 2003, followed by a slow decrease until 2008. The dramatic drop in emissions in 2009 due to the financial crisis and the strong rebound in 2010, are covered in two separate studies from EEA.

The single most important factor to explain emission trends is related to the economy. It is a well-known fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restructuring of eastern European economies that followed had great impact on the region's GHG emissions. Heavily polluting industries were shut down, and the restructuring of the agricultural sector caused a drop in the number of cattle and in related methane emissions. In southern Europe the economy expanded over the period 1990 to 2008. Higher living standards resulted in higher energy demand and an increase in emissions.

Although the economy has had the greatest impact on emissions it does not mean that policy has had none. One interesting finding is that several polices with other aims than reducing GHG emissions have so far contributed the most to climate mitigation. The Large Combustion Plant (LCP) Directive, later reinforced through the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive (IPPC), was conceived with the primary intention to improve air quality, but caused a switch in fuels that also led to a reduction in carbon emissions.

Another piece of policy that has impacted on GHG emissions is the Nitrates Directive, which was enforced with the main intention to protect waters from nitrogen pollution. The reduction in fertilizers applied to agricultural soils also led to a reduction in the amount of nitrous oxide emitted into the atmosphere.

Policies with clear climate ambitions have had relatively little impact up to 2008. One reason is that several of them were only introduced late in the studied period. Mandatory energy taxation for all EU member states is one example. This has not resulted in a change in consumer behaviour since the minimum level is set too low to have any significant impact. But for forerunner countries like Germany, Sweden and Denmark with relatively high energy and CO2 taxes, energy taxation was shown to have an impact.

The EU emissions trading scheme (ETS) was implemented in 2005. For the first trading period (2005-2008) reductions due to reform were modest, because of the generous emission caps given to eastern European countries, among others. The ETS system will also contribute to smooth out the effects of temporary economic recession. The emission reductions due to the recent financial crisis took place mainly within the ETS sector, so these emission reductions can be banked and traded in years of economic growth.

Transport is the sector that has seen the greatest increase in GHG emissions during the past twenty years. Between 1990 and 2008, emissions grew by 24 per cent (34 per cent if aviation is included). Ninety-four per cent of total emissions from this sector come from road transport. The pace of the increase fell for passenger cars during the period, but for freight transport, emissions kept growing faster than GDP. Savings due to improvements in engine efficiency were eaten up by an increase in volume. Policies intended to shift to less carbon-intensive means of transport such as rail and shipping have not been sufficient to decrease the share of road transport.

According to the EEA's projections of future GHG emissions, the EU-27 will not reach its 20 per cent target by 2020 with existing measures, but if all planned measures are implemented they will come as close as 19 per cent (figure). If the EU target is increased to 30 per cent, further efforts are needed. To achieve the deep long-term reduction that is required, 80-95 per cent by 2050, EU member states need to enhance their efforts even more.

Though much of the past emission reductions have been driven by changes in the economy, recent trends show that there is a great opportunity for policy to be of more significance in the future. Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of EEA said: "Many different policies have played an active role in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions. Alongside renewable energy or energy efficiency, efforts to reduce water pollution from agriculture also led to emission reductions. This experience shows we can reduce emissions further if we consider the climate impacts of various policies more systematically."

Kajsa Lindqvist

The EEA reports Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe: a retrospective trend analysis for the period 1990-2008, Tracking progress towards Kyoto protocol and 2020 targets in Europe and Approximated EU GHG inventory: Early estimates for 2010 can be downloaded at:

Figure. Trends and projections of EU total GHG emissions. Note that member state projections do not include emissions from international aviation. Such emissions are included in the Primes-Gains scenarios. 2025 and 2030 projections based on information provided by 12 member states. For other member states, 2030 projections were interpolated using the 2020–2025 and 2020–2030 relative trends available from the Commission's scenarios based on the Primes and Gains models.

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