Photo: / Bill Dickinson CC BY

Development of Kyoto GHG emissions in Europe 1990 to 2015

Greenhouse gas emissions in Europe are falling rapidly in some countries and not at all in others. The great variation geographically and over time show that much more can be done.

“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” sang Leonard Cohen.

Those words apply to many things, including data on greenhouse gases supplied by the Climate Convention. The overall trend is that emissions are dropping, though not very fast and not very much. If you zoom in you will find that emissions vary widely between nations and over time. Some countries have increased emissions considerably over many years. Some have not done a thing. Some have cut their emissions steadily over a long period, while still others have cut emissions dramatically in some years.

In a recent published briefing1 we present emissions data for European nations in 1990, which is the base year for the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, and forms the Paris Agreement baseline for many countries. Data is also presented for the two latest years available, 2014 and 2015. Figures are given for greenhouse gases as a whole, and for each of the six gases separately, provided by the UNFCC.

There are many kinds of emission cuts in the period 1990–2015, and many causes, but three are among the most important. The first is a result of the collapse of industry in Eastern European  countries, giving a decrease of roughly 40 percent. The second is from non-CO2 greenhouse gases in all countries due mainly to factors other than climate policy. These were also low-hanging fruit. Methane from landfills has been cut because it is a fire hazard and old landfills were a general nuisance. Modernization of the aluminium industry, long overdue, has led to a dramatic decrease in PFCs. The phasing out of ozone-depleting CFCs (not in the Kyoto Protocol) first led to an increase in the substitute HFCs (a Kyoto gas), then to a decrease in HFCs, within the same legal structure. Some of the methane and N2O cuts were the result of modernization (shrinking) of agriculture and a small number of other industries.

The third is from real climate policy and took place after 2005, in some nations. CO2 is by far the most important greenhouse gas, and has been in political focus since the Brundtland UN report in 1987, which started the IPCC and the 1992 Climate Convention.

From 1990 to 2015 very little was done about CO2. The EU-15 nations, which negotiated the Kyoto treaty in 1997, actually increased their emissions. This included Germany, which did cut its emissions, but mainly due to the reunification process that deleted most of East German industry. Sweden, Denmark and the UK showed some modest improvements, but that was it.

In the next ten years, 2005–15, the picture is different. The EU-15 cut their CO2 emissions by 20 per cent. Some of the cuts are too easy to explain: in Greece, Spain and Portugal the economies imploded after the 2008 financial crisis. But that does not really explain the following cuts:

   Belgium   -17 %

   Denmark   -31 %

   Finland   -22 %

   France   -15 %

   Germany   -9 %

   Sweden   -20 %

   UK  -26 %

Germany is still not very impressive, but during this time it shut down nine nuclear power stations and greatly increased its electricity exports. This provides at least some excuse. The Netherlands has no such excuse. Its emissions in 2015 were seven percent below those of 2005, but still above the 1990 level. Norway has no excuse for increasing its emissions between 2005 and 2015.

As for the level of CO2 emissions, no European country is anywhere near a sustainable level, which is somewhere below two tons per capita. Per capita emissions differed from less than 5 tons in some countries to more than 10 in others. It is hard to discern any pattern. Do rich countries emit more? Sweden and Switzerland are much richer, per capita, than Russia, but Russia emits far more. Does geography matter much? No, Norway and Iceland have the most per capita hydro, but both emit more than Denmark, which has no hydro. The big difference is in politics.

This becomes very clear if one looks at the flip side of climate policy, especially CO2 policy, i.e. efforts for wind and solar. In the case of wind power, Denmark got 2496 kWh, while Russia had 1 (one) and Slovakia none at all. Their climates are not so different, but obviously the political climate for wind power differs greatly.

The solar leader in 2015 was Germany with 469 kWh/capita. Neighbouring Poland had only 1 and Russia 0. South of Poland is the Czech Republic, which had 210 kWh/capita. France and Denmark may differ in insolation, but they produce the same amount of solar power. Sweden gets about as much sunshine as Denmark, but Denmark produced 10 times as much solar energy. All these differences are the result of policies such as subsidies and net metering.

These figures demonstrate a huge amount of sloppy climate policy. But it is also easy to see that the potential for improvement is very big in most, or all, countries. Especially for those in the bottom league for renewables and in the top league for emissions. The differences carry a message.

There is a crack, that’s how the light gets in.

Fredrik Lundberg

1 Climate forcers: development of Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions in Europe 1990 to 2015.


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