Europe Unlikely to Meet Climate Goal, Study Finds

Source: By MELISSA EDDY, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2015

A coal-fired power station in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Many energy providers there use brown coal, a cheap and dirty fossil fuel. CreditMartin Meissner/Associated Press 

BERLIN — The European Union will fail to meet an ambitious goal of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 unless it takes more aggressive measures to limit the use of fossil fuels and adopts new environmental policies, according to a report scheduled for release on Tuesday.

Although European countries are on track to meet, and even surpass, the goal of reducing 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020, existing policies are not robust enough to ensure that the 2050 targets are met, the report said. Those targets, scientists have said, are critical to forestalling the most catastrophic effects of climate change, which are linked to carbon emissions caused by human activity.

“The level of ambition of environmental policies currently in place to reduce environmental pressures may not enable Europe to achieve long-term environmental goals, such as the 2050 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 percent,” the report said.

The report also noted that transportation continues to account for a quarter of all carbon emissions within the European Union, and reducing those by 60 percent by 2050 will require “significant additional measures.”

The report, which will formally be released on Tuesday, was compiled by the European Environment Agency, based in Copenhagen, and is produced every five years to assess how the Union is progressing toward its environmental goals and to inform European policy. It will be presented to the European Commission and debated in the European Parliament later this month.

The findings are significant because Europeans have taken a lead role in seeking to avert the worst effects of climate change, in some cases putting aside their own economic prospects and political pressures to enact policies that could also serve as models for other countries and regions. The European Union’s failure to achieve its goals could discourage efforts by more reluctant nations, like China and India, and could loom large later this year as nations gather in Paris to discuss a global climate treaty.

Hans Bruyninckx, the executive director of the European Environment Agency, characterized the report as an alarming call that provides the 28 European Union member states with a fresh opportunity to set a global example.

“Although we have colored the outlook red, it doesn’t have to be red,” Mr. Bruyninckx said. He named increased energy efficiency, ecological innovation and improvements to transportation systems as potential areas in which Europeans could adjust their policies to meet their long-term goals.

“Although we have all of these very different countries with very different energy profiles, in the long run, the commitment to these targets is there, the level of ambition to reach the 80 percent is high on the political agenda,” Mr. Bruyninckx said.

Setting global emissions targets, however, has proved elusive for years, and the latest assessment of Europe’s progress illustrates that once targets are reached, significant difficulties remain in holding countries to their agreed-to goals.

Even a country like Germany, where support for the environment borders on a religion, has faced unforeseen challenges as it aims to revamp its energy sector from reliance on traditional sources of energy, such as nuclear and fossil fuels, to renewable sources, including wind, solar and biofuels.

The race to shutter the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, for example, has resulted in many power providers using brown coal, or lignite, the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fuels to keep the power flowing to customers. This, in turn, has led to an increase in carbon emissions.

According to the report, Germany, whose economy is the best in Europe, was the only country with a significant rise in both its emissions reductions and energy consumption last year. Along with Belgium, it is one of only two countries not on track to meet its 2020 targets in either category. According to the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, the country increased its carbon omissions by 20 million tons from 2012 to 2013, instead of reducing them.

In order to meet its goals, Germany must reduce emissions annually by 3.5 percent over the next six years, a feat that will result in substantial increases in energy costs, and generate political pressure to block measures that could hurt the economy.

Harro van Asselt, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Oxford Centre, said Germany saw a drop in emissions after many polluting industrial sites in the former East Germany were shuttered between the late 1990s and early 2000s. The closings occurred just as Europe began tackling climate change, which assisted the European Union in meeting its 2020 targets, he said.

“The question is not why they might stumble now; the main question is why did they reach their targets before,” Mr. van Asselt said.

Now the hard part begins, he said, as the European Union faces the need to undertake more difficult and costly measures in areas like transportation and agriculture to ensure that emissions targets remain on track.

“As long as the European Commission doesn’t undertake more measures in these sectors, they are going to have difficulties in even reaching their goals for 2030,” Mr. van Asselt said.

Globally, the environmental news is not all bleak. The United States failed to adopt the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, in part because Congress feared it would hurt the country economically. But last year President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached an agreement that set new goals for those countries to curb their carbon emissions within the next 15 years. The deal was seen as a breakthrough, helping to resolve some of the differences between two of the world’s biggest polluters, whose dispute was partly the reason a climate agreement was not reached in Copenhagen in 2009.

European leaders are counting on recent international efforts to help reach a global agreement in Paris. The most recent report issued by the United Nations last year warned that failure to reduce emissions could alter the climate so drastically that it could endanger life as we know it. The Europeans hope this added pressure, coupled with the moral example they tried to set decades ago, will contribute to a lasting global agreement on emissions reductions.

“I think the role of Europe is essential and we have demonstrated that we can make solid multinational agreements that can work,” Mr. Bruyninckx said.