Europe's climate action pledges: Are we on track?

Last minor revision on October 26, 2020. There is a follow-up to this post.

With the Climate and Energy Framework the European Union (EU) sets itself a binding target to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Consistent with the Paris Agreement objective to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2°C, 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.

I wondered what those goals really mean in absolute terms, and whether we are anywhere close to "on track" with the current trend of emissions?

Let’s have a look at the official data. That is, the GHG emissions in the EU classified by technical processes, which are recorded in National Greenhouse Gas Inventories compiled under the EU Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Mechanism and held by the European Environment Agency (dataset DAT-13-en). It's the data the EU submits to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

A note of clarification first. GHGs are a group of different gases, all contributing to global warming. The most widely known are the non-fluorinated gases carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). But there are also the two fluorinated gases sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and the classes of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). The nice feature is that the different gases can be lumped together – by using appropriate weighting factors that express their respective potency in creating the greenhouse effect – into a quantity called carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq). That’s the quantity reported, and it means all GHG emissions as if they were all CO2

The 2030 target

The bars in the figure below depict total yearly GHG emissions in the EU-27, including international transport, for the years 1990 through 2018 (the latest data available) in billion tons of CO2-eq.

Author composed figure, using raw data from the sources described in text.
Author composed figure, using raw data from the sources described in text.

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% Climate and Energy Framework target for 2030. A 40% cut is 2,005.4 million tons in absolute terms, that’s an average cut of 50.1 million tons per year (again, that’s 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’s 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 "trend of the trend" looks even worse.

Sure, my definition of "on track" is simplistic. Policymakers may object that I need to account for all those nice policies and technologies that they think 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. Make your opinion about the European Commission's recent proposal to raise the 2030 target to 55% (which refers to "net" emissions, however, as explained below) against this background.

The 2050 target

The 2050 target is tricky, because it is defined in terms of "net" emissions. What the heck does this 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.

Negative emissions are by no means witches' brew, but regarding climate action pledges and targets they widen the scope for guesswork and wishful thinking even further. Again, let's take stock bluntly by not making up some number of future negative emissions, but by gauging the negative emissions that are implicit in the 2050 "net-zero" target, given the trends identified above.

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 we are still left with two billion tons. That's a damn lot! At least it's not in the same ballpark as, well, zero. And that is the optimistic path. If we continue with the current pace of cutting 35.1 million tons per year, we are left with close to three billion tons 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.

Theme image derived from a photograph by Ella Ivanescu, processed with Graphite Sketchbook.

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