Photo: © Lars-Erik Håkansson

The ten best climate measures

NGOs from northern Europe propose which climate policy measures to present for national climate plans.

In the next few months all the countries that signed the Paris agreement must submit updated plans to meet their National Determined Contributions (NDC). Here are some proposals on which measures to take. In recent years, NGOs have identified 150 ways to save the climate in northern Europe by promoting effective climate mitigation measures in the national climate policies of 11 countries that make up the Council of Baltic Sea States. These measures are delivering emission cuts, and more measures have been added. Climate policy experts from environmental NGOs in each country listed the ten best climate mitigation measures in their countries, i.e. the Nordic-Baltic countries, and Poland, Germany and Russia. These were implemented or at least agreed upon and were summarized as 10 overall measures, together with the national reports. All 10 of the top measures described then are still good today and have led to a drop in CO2 emissions in most countries (table).

This took place as the economy grew, at about 1 per cent per year. Climate policy has produced results in some countries, notably Denmark, Finland and Sweden. It is also instructive to see that the countries that have increased their emissions most have a strong fossil industry: Norway (oil and gas), Estonia (shale), Poland (coal) and Russia (oil, gas and coal). Poor performance by Germany may be explained by the strong position of coal, especially lignite.

In recent years the climate has increasingly become a political focus point in the wake of the fifth IPCC report in 2014 and the Paris agreement in 2015. One consequence is a growing number of increasingly stringent greenhouse gas emission targets, nationally and for the EU.

Fossil power is losing out both politically and economically to wind, solar, efficiency and smart grids. It is not conceivable to plan for investment in coal power anymore and it is increasingly difficult to defend existing coal. Greta Thunberg was not alone in condemning the German plan to phase out lignite by 2038 as unacceptably slow.

The economic pressure against some fossil use comes both from cheaper renewables and a belated reform of the European emission trading scheme (ETS). The ETS was useless in 2005–2017 when the price was €4–6 per tonne. Since summer 2018 it has been around €25, sometimes close to €30. As long as the market players believe that prices will remain high, the ETS has great transformative potential in the heat and electricity sector and in some high-emission industries.

The price increase hits old lignite and coal power plants both immediately, and for the longer term.

One of the problems with the ETS is that it is so complicated that practically nobody understands it, and if somebody thinks s/he has understood it, new complexities will soon be added.
The effects on other sectors (than power) such as steel, cement, refineries and waste incineration are less certain. Aviation is included in the ETS, but on extremely generous terms that will not reduce emissions. Even if further improvements are made, the ETS is not a panacea.

The report identified 150 ways to save the climate. All or most of them will be needed.

Here is the top 10 list, with comments on new developments. Some of the comments are made with the benefit of hindsight and with a view to the “replicability” of the measures, i.e. whether they could be copied by the rest of the world.

1. Taxing carbon. This is ever more important, both for non-ETS emissions and for emissions within the system. The UK pioneered a tax for the latter, as a backstop when the carbon price was too low and as a call to action. The Netherlands has decided to do the same.

2. Support for renewable electricity. Renewables have advanced everywhere. The German feed-in tariffs are a well-known success story. The Swedish-Norwegian certificates have also delivered a lot of wind energy for little money.

3. Improved efficiency of buildings. Stricter building codes are a reliable and inexpensive way to cut fuel use for heating and cooling. Airtight and well-insulated buildings make sense everywhere in the world, whether to keep the warmth in or to keep it out.

Apart from (national) building codes, Green Building, LEED and BREEAM are examples of building energy and environment certificates, some originating in the UK, US and EU, and some national. They are shrinking the direct and indirect climate footprint of new and renovated buildings.

4. Other efficiency improvements (e.g. EU labelling of fridges). In a world of free trade, energy standards tend to be international.

The EU energy labelling of consumer products started in 1992, with modest requirements for a few products. It gained visibility when incandescent bulbs were banned.

This showed that a relatively soft carrot-type instrument – labelling – can be part of a market transformation that includes a ban on the worst-performing products.

The US Energy Star is also widely used in Europe, and has greatly reduced energy consumption from office equipment etc.

5. District heating efficiency. Such measures were very effective, but there is not very much more to do, and district heating is not common in many countries.

6. Vehicle emission standards. The EU fleet goal for 2021 for cars is 95 grams per kilometre. Verification (through test cycles) is almost as important as the numbers, as was demonstrated by the diesel scandal.

In some countries only Euro5 or Euro6 vehicles are allowed in densely populated urban zones, which gives extra oomph to the regulation.

7. Other measures to reduce traffic CO2 (taxes for vehicles and fuels). One of the Norwegian top 10 methods in 2013 was support for electric vehicles. By then it was not certain that electric cars would reach the range or price level to become relevant. Now most people believe battery vehicles and plug-in hybrids are an important part of the solution. They fit in well with power systems that use much more wind and solar in a smart grid.

Support for biofuels has produced good results, in Sweden for example diesel and biogas from waste and wood industry residues, though many other biofuels are either produced from imported raw materials or from unsustainable sources, or both.

Taxes for vehicles and fuels are national and complicated. Sweden’s bonus-malus system for new cars which taxes high-emitters and subsidizes low-emitters was effective from mid-2018, and it may be too early to evaluate. But in principle it gives a strong incentive to sell, and indirectly to produce, more fuel-efficient cars.
If hydrogen and battery electric vehicles are to replace all fossil cars, they need different kinds of support for a long time.

8. Infrastructure planning. Moving from air and road to rail takes a long time if it is to be achieved with new infrastructure, and it is not happening on anywhere near the necessary timescale.

Another important infrastructure factor is more power lines and storage to make room for much more wind and solar. This mainly requires national or bi-national decisions and is looking more promising, with new lines from Scandinavia to Germany and the UK in the near future, for example.

Smart grid and demand-side management are still in the budding phase. They are necessary for the integration of very large amounts of wind and solar. They are also much less expensive than building power plants for reserve and peak.
New kinds of infrastructure are needed for electric vehicles and hydrogen vehicles. This is both a challenge for the electricity grid and an opportunity to make it smarter.

9. Waste and recycling. One success in much of Europe is the reduction of methane from waste disposal sites. In the EU, emissions fell from 160 to 87 Mt CO2-equivalents between 1990 and 2017. The reduction was much greater in the Nordic countries and Germany, and much less in Poland. Such emissions increased greatly in Russia and southern Europe.
One worrying development is that the use of plastics – produced from fossil fuels – is increasing, and that only a small fraction is recycled in a meaningful sense. The recycling rate (collection) varies widely between countries; according to Eurostat it is lowest in Estonia (24.6%) and highest in Lithuania (72.4%). The high figure for Lithuania may be explained by a good system of refundable deposits . In Sweden the recycling rate is around 60 per cent, but according to the chairman of the Swedish recycling organization, former MEP Anders Wijkman, this “recycling” is overwhelmingly incineration, and only eight per cent of the plastic is actually reused.

District heating companies in countries with a lot of district heat are now very tempted to burn mixed waste, which they are paid to import from countries that do not have much district heating. Exporting waste to third-world countries is increasingly difficult, as it is (rightly) seen as a national abuse of the importing countries, some of which are shipping it back.
Better methods have to be developed to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic. Sweden, which burns large and increasing amounts of plastic, has recently introduced a tax on such combustion.

10. Land use (afforestation, better agricultural practices, wetland reclamation). Afforestation was among national measures in Lithuania and Iceland in the 2013 report. On a global scale it is extremely important to keep forests and expand forested area, probably the second most important measure for the climate after cutting emissions from fossil fuels. But it is not just a quantitative issue of storing X gigatonnes of carbon in forests and soil, as in the Climate Convention. Other aspects are just as vital: biodiversity, food security, supply of fibres for clothes, construction and paper, and control of large fire hazards.

Land use is mainly a national concern, and though some measures can be copied from one country to another, it is not simple.
Effective new measures:

11. ETS is working, at last. See above.

12. Climate laws and stricter targets. Very important but not easily summarized.

13. Hydrogen. The Swedish HYBRIT project aims to substitute coal for hydrogen from renewable electricity for ore mining and steel-making. Power-to-gas is being tried on a smaller scale in Germany, as a way to use “surplus” renewables. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles such as the Toyota Mirai are now on the market on a limited scale. Whether hydrogen cars can compete with battery cars is not clear, but it is difficult to imagine a fossil-free world without a role for hydrogen. Hydrogen buses are operating or being planned in Norway, Latvia, Denmark, Iceland and above all in Germany. Hydrogen is also a possible fuel for aviation. Biofuel production needs hydrogen input to convert wood etc. to liquid fuels.

14. HFC phase-out. The phasing out CFCs of (freons) had a side effect, an increase in production of soft freons (HFCs). But these are now being phased out as well, with an initial phase-out date for the sale of new HFC refrigeration machines, followed by a ban on refilling. HFC emissions are now coming down for example in Denmark, Poland and Germany.

15. Electric food. All food production has so far been based on photosynthesis, directly or indirectly (through meat, milk or fungi). Photosynthesis is at best 1% efficient in converting light to carbohydrate (solar panels have efficiencies of 15–20%). Nitrogen fertilizer production uses fossil fuels and emits N2O.

An innovative way to mitigate the horrible environmental and climatic consequences of how we produce and consume food is to produce some of it from the air (nitrogen) with renewable electricity. This is being developed in Finland , with support from the European Space Agency.

Another way is to persuade people (and animals) to eat more organic and less meat, which is also good for public health. Some municipalities are reducing meat in school meals.

Fredrik Lundberg

The 10 best climate mitigation measures in Northern Europe
What will it take to phase out greenhouse gas emissions from road traffic in the Nordic-Baltic region by 2030–2035?
Possible to phase out the climate impact of road traffic in 15 years
The Nordic-Baltic Region can be decarbonised by 2030
A vision for zero carbon emissions in the Nordic-Baltic region by about 2030

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