Enthusiasm over small fall in EU emissions masks underlying apathy on 2°C

“Delivering on 2020 climate goals shows that Europe is ready to step up its act. And better, still: it shows that the EU is delivering substantial cuts. The policies work.
                                                                                                                       Connie Hedegaard [1]
                                                                                                     EU Climate Action Commissioner

The above is Connie Hedegaard’s response to the Commission and European Environment Agency’s Progress Report on climate action, in which, “according to latest estimates, EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 fell by 1.8% compared to 2012 and reached the lowest levels since 1990. So not only is the EU well on track to reach the 2020 target, it is also well on track to overachieve it.”[1] 

Below is my alternative take on the same announcement.

In the context of international commitments to stay below the 2°C characterisation of dangerous climate change, hand wringing or fist waving over irrelevant 2020 targets is all part of the fog that continues to thwart any meaningful action on climate change. The consumption-based emissions (i.e. where emissions associated with imports and exports are considered) of the EU 28 were 2% higher in 2008 than in 1990[1]. By 2013 emissions had marginally reduced to 4% lower than 1990 – but not as a consequence of judicious climate change strategies, but rather the financial fallout of the bankers’ reckless greed – egged on by complicit governments and pliant regulation.

In the quarter of a century since the first IPCC report we have achieved nothing of any significant merit relative to the scale of the climate challenge. All we have to show for our ongoing oratory is a burgeoning industry of bureaucrats, well meaning NGOs, academics and naysayers who collectively have overseen a 60+% rise in global emissions. Even the wealthy EU presided over rising emissions until the financial debacle hit home. Certainly we have a fledgling renewables industry, some public awareness and a press that has jumped on the opportunity to polarise yet another complicated and nuanced debate. A few prominent climate-change advocates and sceptics have done very nicely out of it, as, of course, have a cadre of bankers and financiers who successfully convinced governments that converting carbon into money would enable them to trade the problem away. But whilst a bewildering array of financial instruments and offsetting ‘products’ may have succeeded in lining their pockets, they singularly failed to make any dent in our emissions.

With Paris set to host the next major round of negotiations in December 2015, there is little time to convert a sow’s ear into a silk purse – and the omens are not looking good if the EU’s decision to adopt a leaky 40% target by 2030 is anything to go by.

If we are serious about repeated international commitments to reduce emissions inline with the 2°C obligation (“consistent with science and on the basis of equity”[2]) the EU will need to reduce its emissions by over 80% by 2030 – with the rapid phase out of all fossil fuels soon after [3]. Recourse to increasingly esoteric Ponzi schemes and fervent discussion of annual tweaks in emissions are all just elaborate ruses for inaction. We have collectively bought into the numerology of incremental change, efficient markets, trading and offsetting – and until we break that spell our emission trends will continue their groundhog day.

The music’s stopped playing, the lights have come on and the doors are swinging open – someone has to make the first move. The EU has over two decades of rousing rhetoric on climate change – so perhaps now is the time for it demonstrate courageous leadership and scientifically informed action.



[1] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-1202_en.htm

[2] Data from the Global Carbon Atlas

[3] Report of the Conference of the Parties; fifteenth session; Copenhagen, 7 to 19 December 2009. See also: President Barroso on the results of the L’Aquila summit; European Commission, MEMO/09/332; 10/07/2009 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-09-332_en.htm

[4] The reasoning behind the 80% by 2030 figure was laid out in a recent letter to the UK Prime Minister prior to his attending the European Council meeting at which the 40% target was agreed. The letter built on an earlier version sent to the previous Commission President in the lead up to the Green Paper, ‘A 2030 framework for climate and energy policies’.