Europe's climate strategy appears to be working. For now.
The Europeans were the first to embrace comprehensive targets for renewables and carbon mitigation. Although the strategies of individual member countries have been heavily scrutinized (Germany) and widely criticized (Spain), the EU's early embrace of a low-carbon strategy was influential in bringing other big emitters like America, China and India to the table for a global climate deal in 2015.
In 2008, Europe approved the 20-20-20 policy designed to boost renewables to a 20-percent market share, and cut greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption 20 percent by 2020. It later added an ambitious 2030 target that requires the bloc to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, and a 2050 target that calls for an 80-95 percent reduction in emissions.
It's been a decade since the 2020 targets were first introduced. How's it going?
It's a mixed bag. The trends are undoubtedly positive across the region. Progress needs to accelerate slightly to hit 2020 targets — and it needs to go into overdrive in order to get the region anywhere close to the trajectory needed between 2030 and 2050.
The European Environment Agency just released a report on the impact of renewables in the region. It found that European countries had collectively cut fossil fuel consumption by 11 percent since 2005 with the help of renewable energy. Coal and natural gas took the biggest hit.
“This amount is comparable to the fossil fuel consumption of Italy. The largest reductions were realised in the consumption of solid fuels (62 Mtoe, or roughly 48% of all avoided fossil fuels) and gaseous fuels (36 Mtoe, representing about 28% of all avoided fossil fuels).”
The EEA researchers modeled a scenario without renewables, accounting for the differences in energy mix across individual countries.
“Effectively, this assumes that the growth in renewable energy since 2005 has substituted an equivalent amount of energy that would have been supplied by a country-specific mix of conventional sources. The approach does not take into account life-cycle emissions or carbon accounting.”
The study also found that EU member countries had cut gross carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent since 2005 — again, the emissions equivalent of Italy.
“Most of these changes took place in energy-intensive industrial sectors under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), as the increase in renewable electricity decreased the reliance on fossil fuels and contributed roughly three quarters of the estimated total reductions attributed to RES use,” wrote the researchers.
Where does this put Europe in relation to its upcoming goals? The short term looks good. The long term is far less certain.
Researchers estimate that renewable electricity will need to grow at 6 percent a year in order to hit 2020 targets. Growth rates in that sector have averaged 7 percent a year.
Renewable heating and cooling will need to grow 4 percent each year through 2020. It has averaged a 3-percent growth rate.
Biofuels will need to grow 14 percent on average through 2020. From 2005 to 2014, consumption of renewable fuels grew 18 percent each year on average.
EEA's executive director told the Guardian that 2030 goals will still be tough to meet, given policy uncertainties in member countries. “The EU’s 2020 targets on energy and climate are now well within reach […] But certain trends are alarming, in particular for transport. In that sector, renewable energy use remains insufficient and greenhouse gas emissions are rising again,” Hans Bruyninckx told the newspaper.
Beyond 2030, the task is even more daunting. Last month, a different group of European researchers published a report on what's needed to keep the planet from warming more than 2 °C. From now until 2050, carbon dioxide emissions will need to fall by half each decade globally. Beyond 2030, countries will need to rely on much more than wind and solar to decarbonize — they'll need to take cars off the road, capture emissions from most power plants, and deploy “radical new energy generation solutions.” European countries will need to zero out carbon emissions, or go carbon-negative.
The EEA researchers echoed those findings: “[W]orldwide renewable energy investments are currently still not on a trajectory that will ensure limiting global warming to 2 °C. To meet that target, a 1.2 % increase per year of the global RES share in total primary energy supply is needed — a sevenfold acceleration compared to recent years.”
So far, Europe's emissions reductions have been sufficient. Beyond 2030, they'll be grossly inadequate.