Are Europe’s greenhouse gas cuts real?

On Saturday, I reported that 15 EU countries were on track to meet Kyoto targets, but some readers — including Roger Pielke, Jr. (!) — were skeptical. Now the European Environment Agency (EEA) has released a lot of the underlying data, “Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2008.”

Figure ES-1 (click to enlarge) tells much of the story:


The Kyoto goal for the EU-15 is an 8% cut by 2008-2012 compared to 1990 levels. Four Member States (Germany, Greece, Sweden and the United Kingdom) expect to achieve their targets “through reductions from existing measures alone.” What will the EU-15 do as a whole?

Data show that the 15 EU Member States sharing a common target under the Kyoto Protocol (EU-15) achieved a reduction of their greenhouse gases by 2.7% between the base year and 2006. The policies and measures in place as of today will not be sufficient for the EU-15 to meet its Kyoto target, as they are expected to push down emissions between 2006 and 2010 to an average level only 3.6% below the base-year emissions. If the additional measures planned by 10 Member States were fully implemented and on time, a further reduction of 3.3% could be obtained. The full effect of the EU Emission Trading Scheme is not reflected in all Member States’ projections.

That means if the additional measures are achieved, the EU-15 would achieve nearly a 7% cut between 1990 and 2010, which is quite close to their target. What are these measures?

The largest further emission reductions projected from such measures correspond to the Directive on the Promotion of Electricity from Renewable Energy Sources, the Directive on the Energy Performance on Buildings, the Cogeneration Directive and the voluntary agreements to reduce per km CO2 emissions from new cars reached with the European, Japanese and Korean automobile industries.

These are all straightforward strategies for reducing GHG emissions, and unlike Dr. Pielke, I see no reason why they should be lumped in with rip-offsets or dismissed as “some accounting tricks and rosy assumptions for the next 18 (!) months.” [Note to Pielke: It is not “the next 18 (!) months. It is the next 48 months, since the EEA report data goes through 2006, and the budget period goes from 2008-2012.] At this point there is no reason to conclude EEA’s analysis is not correct.

Indeed, rather than dismiss these strategies, I confess I spent a few minutes daydreaming of a time when this country might have such directives on core climate solutions, a time when this country might actually have a policy to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and, God forbid, recycled energy. But then I remembered who our president is and snapped out of it.

What will the EU-15 do to fill the (small) gap?

Most EU-15 Member States intend to use carbon sinks — such as planting forests that absorb CO2 — to achieve their Kyoto target. The total amount of carbon dioxide that could be removed annually between 2008 and 2012 is relatively small (1.4% compared to 1990), although it is somewhat higher than the projections made in 2007.

In general I am not thrilled with with trees as offsets, but at this low level, one can hardly get very upset.

The use of Kyoto mechanisms (clean development mechanism and joint implementation), currently planned by ten countries, would help to reduce emissions by a further 3.0%.

About half of these are probably rip-offsets, as a 2008 Stanford analysis concluded (see “What is the difference between carbon offsets and mortgage-backed securites?“). Still, even if only one third of them are real, the EU-15 would hit their 2010 target, even ignoring the carbon sinks.

Bottom Line: Europe made a major commitment under the Kyoto protocol that U.S. conservatives have been telling us for years they would never achieve. Yet it now looks like they will meet their commitment under the terms of the protocol. It looks like they will need some combination of carbon sinks and CDM offsets to get the last 1% of reductions. I won’t be losing any sleep over that and certainly don’t think that any American has any right whatsoever to criticize them. Quite the reverse. European countries have every right to accuse America of continuing to destroy the climate while they alone take a variety of serious actions to reverse their emissions trends.

Yes, it is true that Europe has a very low fertility rate but immigration now keeps their population rising almost as fast as United States. As for how much of Europe’s emissions growth might have been outsourced, I haven’t seen analysis on that subject, but the EU-15’s trade deficit with China appears to be about half of ours, so we have probably been doing a lot more emissions outsourcing.

Yes, the first phase of emissions reduction was always going to be the easiest. But that goes double for this country, given that we are far more efficient than Europe. The time to act was yesterday ten years ago.

UPDATE: In another comment to my earlier post, Pielke points out the 3% CDM offsets and the 1.4% in carbon sinks and claims “the EEA report mentioned in the AP study identifies such offsets as central to the ability of the EU-15 to meet its goals.” Central? How does getting the last 1% of emissions reductions with offsets make them central? Remember, absent Kyoto, the EU-15’s emissions would have grown considerably from 1990 levels.

I understand why some people in this country seem to glory in any problems Europe has in meeting its target: It somehow implies we should be let off the hook for not ratifying Kyoto and for not embracing any serious domestic action. But I actually consider it rather amazing that the EU has accomplished so much given the sorry state of international climate politics.

After all, inaction by China alone is used by conservatives and businesses in this country as a major justification for opposing all domestic action. Imagine how tough it must be for European leaders when they have to keep pushing climate action in the face of inaction by China and the United States — their two major economic competitors.

We won’t know for about 3 or 4 years how close the EU-15 will come to meeting its Kyoto target without offsets. But it seems clear enough today that what they have done is a very impressive achievement that should serve as an inspiration to the world.

Kudos to Europe. Jeers to those who are still trying to diminish what they’ve accomplished.

13 Responses to Are Europe’s greenhouse gas cuts real?

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. says:


    A good post, and pretty fair.

    But what you don’t observe is that the EU, like the US, has basically followed a business-as-usual path on emissions. (You’ll want to recheck your assertion on the comparison of EU vs. US population growth.)

    There are also other accounting idiosyncrasies, such as those discussed here:

    The bottom line is that if you really think that the EU experience is a success story, rather than a cautionary tale about the real challenges of reducing emissions even with strong political support, then I am surprised, as you usually take a more critical look at the data than demonstrated here.

    Europe has shown real leadership, but at the same time its progress is not even close to anything you have called for, quite the opposite. meantime, more agressive EU polciies are foundering:

  2. Joe says:

    Roger — I agree that Europe has done the bare minimum needed here. And I agree they have not done all the things I would like them to do.

    But as I said the international situation that the United States has created is almost untenable. In fact, it is worse than I posted since, for 8 years, the Bush administration has been working hard to undermine the consensus for any follow on to Kyoto, which makes it awfully hard for European businesses to want to take serious action in the near term.

    Yes, this is going to take a lot of political leadership. Let’s see what happens when we have a president that is rowing with Europe, rather than against them.

  3. alex says:

    “Yes, it is true that Europe has a very low fertility rate but immigration now keeps their population rising almost as fast as United States.”

    That is not true. Europe’s population is flat and trending towards a decline:

    [JR: Not sure this includes immigation. I’m looking for hard numbers.]

  4. Yes, congrats to Europe. A great achievement.

  5. Magnus W says:

    Yes we are working hard on it… not every thing goes our way but we are heading in the right direction.

  6. Europe says:

    Why, thankyou.

  7. Dr Dave says:


    You are confusing Europe as a continent with the EU. EU population is currently 495 million. It is projected to peak at 521 million in 2035 and then to slowly decline. See:

    These are the EU official figures.

  8. Paul Biggs says:

    Speaking as someone living in the UK/EU, very little of this post makes any sense to me. The main difference between the US/Bush and the EU is that the EU is big on rhetoric. The US has actually done better at reducing aerial plant food gas than many of the Kyoto signatories. So I would say that there isn’t much, if any, of a correlation between Kyoto and CO2 emissions. What has happened, is that much of our industry has moved to China and India. In the UK there has been a switch to diesel cars from petrol, which produces less harmless CO2, but more NOx. The UK produces very little electricity from so-called ‘renewables,’ and will not be able to meet its renewables obligations. Milder winters have helped, but given the poor state of the UK’s electricity generating capacity, we can’t afford ‘global cooling.’ The motor industry won’t be able to meet the average 120g/km for CO2 in time either.

    Meanwhile, of course, emissions from developing countries have been rising rapidly, more than making up for any reductions by developed countries. More than half of man-made CO2 emissions now come from developing countries. So, I don’t see any possibility for actually reducing atmospheric CO2 levels. Prins and Rayner have pointed out how ineffective Kyoto style policies are at reducing emissions.

    The EU is now struggling to agree on a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 – Italy and Poland won’t accept the policy as it stands. The UK being the home of King Canute has set a target of an 80% reduction in its miniscule 1.8% contribution to global man-made CO2 emissions by 2050, without any real clue as to how it will be achieved.

  9. Charles D says:

    I don’t think it is possible to answer the title question of this post because the entire accounting system for greenhouse emissions is hopelessly skewed. For a start there is the absurdity of using 1990 as the base year: note in Figure ES-1 how all of the EU cuts were ‘achieved’ before Kyoto was signed!

    A potentially more important point was mentioned by Paul; developed countries are exporting their emissions by transferring manufacturing to developing countries. I don’t know how much: are there any useful figures?

    A true accounting of emissions would include all emissions related to consumption of goods in a given country. That means that if a car is imported, the emissions from its manufacture (which nowadays would probably exceed the lifetime emissions from the car itself) should be included in the accounts of the importing country, not the manufacturing country.

    Given that, for some reason, people seem to regard a few % points change as important, this factor, and population change, are much more important than whatever emissions changes go on within Western countries.

    If the EU is importing more of its manufactured goods now than in 1997, and I suspect it is, then exercises like Figure ES-1 have little global relevance.

  10. Hayley says:

    I am intrigued by the candor and attempts at fact-based debate. Although the tone is argumentative, I think the bulk of the post and the comments are instructive. So here I am offering the opinion of an “outsider.” I’d like to point out first to anyone reading these posts who may not know: when it comes to designing things to be cleaner and more efficient, the more efficient something becomes, the more expensive it becomes to improve it. This is especially true in an industrial setting. I’d like to see a graph that shows how much it would cost each country per capita for each percent of their emission improvement. Why? Because it’s economically devastating to ask a state of the art plant to improve by 8%, whereas it’s economically profitable to bring an older technology up to date. I would hope that this is the disparity that disuaded the powers that be to reject the protocol in the first place (although I wouldn’t expect that it was). Until these agreements can address the economics behind the hesitations, I don’t think any meaningful agreements can happen.
    That doesn’t let anyone off the hook though. I think these treaties should absolutely reflect a goal of bringing all nations involved up to par with the best of what’s available in reducing pollution and increasing renewables. Different countries have come up with creative ways to improve their reliance on renewable resources. The treaty that’s asking for so much from the countries involved should be the same one that’s bringing them together to meet those needs. The stick and carrot approach is the one that’s going to move the masses forward.

  11. Josef Zboril says:

    Great reading, thanks all for their view. I follow the EU (15) achievements very closely and let me introduce a few points – my candid observations on the current situation, great expectations (Kyoto) and even greater hopes, close to an attempt of deceit. First, the EU15 would not meet Kyoto, no matter what the EEA says in their annual reports. The outlook is based upon large purchase of external Kyoto credits which is fair and fairness ends at this point. Maybe, some sinks can be also calculated but, are they compliant with the protocol? The rest is based on dire assumption that the EU ETS would bring 4%+ reduction just because the Commission set the overall cap for 08-10 on -6%. The emission reduction has been greatly incentivised by enormously growing prices of energy and the most of industries have already achieved substantial savings and such savings have been eaten by power sector (good luck for everybody) and transport sector, thus, in the next four years there is no reason that emissions would go down in such remarkable percentage. “Additional measures” could start delivering some results mid of the next decade. And, in addition, relevant R-and-D is heavily underfunded, thus, I do not expect too much even in the post-Kyoto start period.
    Second, the Commission has resigned on the original cap-and-trade philosophy and declared this system the major political instrument for the emissions reduction. You know, I spent nearly all my active lifetime in the socialistic central planning environment and this is a perfect example of such a command-and-control approach: bright future is painted and those, who would participate on implementation of such dreams are even not asked abut the earthly reality. And, there is one size able difference: the commie planners were at least planning also the resource side of any exercise which is not the case with the EU-ETS – another small deficiency amongst many more and also more serious ones. The system should facilitate changes implementing real measures and, unfortunately, there are not too many real (and realistic) measures hanging in the air. And the Commission wants to show the others how to design such challenging commitments without moving away from their office desks! No need to remind anybody the fate of our past command-and-control and I swear, I do not see any difference hoping that nobody comes joining the bandwagon and increasing the commitment up to 30%.
    Thus, if the EU 15 is faltering at about -2% with all that shift from coal to gas in the UK and the German unification resulting in slaughter of the former E. German industries, what can be expected next? Slaughter of the EU basic industries (operating now with minimal margins) because of such insensitive demonstration of the “Saviour” syndrome of some politicians and clerks is imminent and it could even threaten the EU existence. We should learn from our past much more!

  12. yor_on says:

    Although all countries say that they want to reduce their emissions nothing really happens. The Kyoto protocol is more of a joke than a ‘problem-solver’.
    Look up ‘Emissions trading’ for a example of what makes it a joke.

    Also one can note that India and China, which have ratified the Kyoto protocol are freed from any obligation to reduce their emissions, especcially remarkable reading that China, who is said to produce one new coal powered plant every tenth day, now have passed USA as being the largest ’emission polluter’ in the world.

    We are already on the brink of large Methane emissions from the tundra as well as under our oceans, we have over four hundred areas worldwide where no fish exist. The oceans waves are moving faster due to the warming of the seas and the acidity of those oceanic ‘heat-sinks’ are rapidly rising, making life impossible.

    The CO2 cycle from ‘release’ to it being ‘absorbed’ into various heat-sinks as the ocean or land is at least fifty years, maybe more. So whatever we do now won’t stop those years already ‘up there’ raising our temperature. The cycle for Methane is around twenty years.

    “Methane Gas hydrates are a potential energy source found in permafrost environments and under the sea floor. They form when water and methane gas come together under extreme pressure and in a cold environment.

    The water and gas are frozen together at a molecular level. One cubic metre of gas hydrates contains 164-cubic-metres of methane gas, and 0.8 cubic metres of water.”

    And if those ‘deposits’ are released by the Earths warming up you can say goodbye to a breathable environment, at least for us humans .

    This are hard facts, not ‘protocols’.
    So do you think we can stand up to those demands?
    Talk some more? Spend our money on bolstering car companies and oil?
    Thank God for that the Arctic is disappearing so that we can get to those ‘new’ gas and oil deposits?


    in Siberia Oerjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden told the Independent newspaper in an email from the vessel Jacob Smirnitskyi.

    “An extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane.

    “Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface. These ‘methane chimneys’ were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instrument].”

    At some locations he said concentrations of the gas were 100 times the background level. These anomalies were documented in the East Siberian Sea and the Laptev Sea, covering several tens of thousands of square kilometres.

    Gustafsson added: “The conventional thought has been that the permafrost ‘lid’ on the sub-sea sediments on the Siberian shelf should cap and hold the massive reservoirs of shallow methane deposits in place.

    “The growing evidence for release of methane in this inaccessible region may suggest that the permafrost lid is starting to get perforated and thus leaking methane.”

    Estimates for the amount of carbon locked up in the hydrates vary from 500 to 5000 gigatonnes. Scientists predict that warming will release some of these deposits, but modeling the temperature rise that would trigger significant releases has proved extremely difficult.”

  13. paulm says:

    Asleep at the wheel
    We will never hit carbon targets when we’re spending £800m on new roads