The EU's decarbonisation of its energy sector will only cut emissions by half the amount needed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius in 2050, according to a business-as-usual scenario quietly released by the European Commission over the Christmas period.

Scientists and EU leaders agree that by mid-century, Europe must ramp up energy savings and green its power generation to slash CO2 emissions by 80-95% compared to 1990 levels, and so avoid catastrophic climate change. 

But according to a European Commission ‘Trends to 2050’ study, which was released below the radar over the Christmas period, the continent is only on track to reduce its emissions by around a third in 2030, and 44% in 2050.

The paper only considered existing CO2 reduction schemes, and assumed no new energy and climate policies after 2020. It was pounced on by clean energy advocates as evidence of the need for a new milestone in 2030.

“With the EU's power sector expected to still be pumping out almost 400 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2050, and the EU in an even worse energy security situation, an ambitious 2030 climate and energy framework, with targets for renewable energy and GHG reductions, is more critical than ever,” said Justin Wilkes, the deputy CEO of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

“Without such targets energy security and a zero-carbon power sector will be impossible,” he added.

Rather than a zero-carbon power sector, the single greenhouse gas cut of 40% by 2030 that currently looks likely to be agreed would put Europe on track for an 80% cut by 2050, environmentalists say.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says this reduction would be in line with a target of containing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million. But that would only give the planet a 50/50 chance of keeping global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency.

In a letter to the European Commission last month, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research accused its president, José Manuel Barroso of a “misrepresentation of probabilities [that] has dramatic consequences for the necessary scale of mitigation.”

Business as usual

The ‘Trends’ documents though simply present business-as-usual scenarios. The last such paper in 2009, before the EU's 2020 targets were announced, projected a 20% emissions cut by 2030.

The new paper predicts that by 2050, gas, wind and nuclear energy will each be providing around a quarter of Europe’s energy supply.

Efficiency gains will also be significant. “Despite significant economic growth making the EU economy 78% larger in 2050 than it was in 2010, there is a decline of total energy consumption by 8%,” the paper says.

But campaigners pointed out that this was not enough. “This trend shows the nonsense of pursuing only a business-as-usual scenario and underlines the need for coherent long-term policy development over the period to 2050,” Adrian Joyce, the secretary-general of EuroACE told EurActiv.

“Not putting greater effort into cost-effective energy efficiency improvements is particularly myopic in the current economic climate,” he added.   

Unconventional fuels

Fuel price projections over the longer term in the study are affected by the shale gas boom and exploration of unconventional fuel reserves, with gas straying from an upwards trend affecting oil prices.

After 2035, the study posits that “the limited availability of indigenous fossil fuel resources (due to depletion of domestic resources) as well as limited additional biomass imports lead to total net energy imports increasing again.”

“This mainly concerns natural gas, which according to the projection will play a crucial role in the context of emission reduction targets and as back-up for variable RES (renewables),” it adds.

A slower development of carbon capture and storage technologies is also forecast.