Mitigation is a huge task – but unfortunately it is not the only challenge arising from climate change. We are seeing some degree of change from GHG emissions already in the atmosphere, so we must also be prepared to adapt.Executive Director of the European Environment Agency Professor Jacqueline McGlade elaborates on EU progress in building a low-carbon economy to mitigate climate change...
Professor Jacqueline McGlade
In working to address climate change, Europe is moving towards a low-carbon economy – but getting there requires a commitment to keep cutting greenhouse gases year on year. Fundamentally, this means breaking the link between economic growth and the environmental impacts of climate change.
Such decoupling would be no small achievement – the link is still very visible. As economic growth returned to most of the world during 2010, man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased: in the EU, they rose by 2.4 per cent between 2009-2010, according to analysis by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
However, there are some reasons for optimism. The long-term perspective shows that emissions have decreased by 15.5 per cent since 1990, while the European economy has grown significantly in the same period. This seems to suggest that we are moving in the right direction.
EEA analysis suggests that several policies have played an active role in bringing down greenhouse gas emissions in the past. Support for both renewable energy and energy efficiency has been the most important intentional drivers of emissions cuts. Furthermore, data suggests that several other policies have helped. For example, efforts to decrease water pollution and the environmental impacts of farming have had the additional benefit of reducing emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases. In parallel with early policies promoting energy efficiency, those that were originally intended to improve air quality by cutting pollution from industrial plants also resulted in important reductions. This experience shows that we can reduce GHG emissions further if we consider the climate impacts of various policies more systematically.
EU member states have committed to a 20 per cent reduction in GHGs by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, which is effectively a precursor to the much deeper emission cuts needed in the long run to build a low-carbon economy.
The European Commission has modelled possible emission reduction pathways in its recent Roadmap for Moving to a Low-Carbon Economy by 2050. This study foresees an 80 per cent decrease in GHGs in the EU over the next four decades, mainly driven by a high carbon price.
An 80 per cent cut means big changes across Europe that will affect almost every sector. Consider the transport sector, for example, which is currently responsible for almost one-quarter of GHG emissions in the EU. Emissions from transport – excluding international shipping – grew by 27 per cent between 1990 and 2009. As Europe's overall emissions are falling, this sector is becoming increasingly important. So transport is one of the areas where we need a fundamental shift, making best use of all available technologies and policies, while investing in research to ensure that we eke ever more benefit from a shrinking emissions budget.
Mitigation is a huge task – but unfortunately it is not the only challenge arising from climate change. We are seeing some degree of change from GHG emissions already in the atmosphere, so we must also be prepared to adapt. An emissions cut of 80 per cent is likely to be consistent with Europe's contribution to keeping average warming below 2°C, according to most scientific research. However, the roadmap is just a simulation of how we might contain warming within a 2°C global average increase, which is also dependent on emissions cuts in other parts of the world.
Moreover, there is still a lot of uncertainty about how much warming we will see this century. Various estimates project an average global increase of between 1.8 and 4°C, even if additional action is taken to limit emissions.
The costs of adaptation in Europe could be several billion euros per year, but this is likely to be far less than that of inaction. The EU adaptation framework aims to develop a comprehensive strategy by 2013, supported by a new web service that will provide a 'clearinghouse mechanism on adaptation' to share and maintain information. So far, 12 European countries have put in place adaptation strategies, as have several regions and cities.
However, it will be impossible to simply adapt to higher levels of warming – which is why moving to a low-carbon economy is Europe's best possible insurance against the worst impacts of climate change. This can also create new industries, improve energy security and have many other environmental benefits besides addressing climate change.
The main challenge is for governments, industries and society to initiate the changes needed in order to build on the gains of the last two decades, making a low-carbon Europe a reality.This article first appeared on publicservice.co.uk: How low can you go?.