EU overshoots 2020 climate target, records 34% drop in emissions

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans (L) does a fist bump with John Kerry (R), US special climate envoy, on 26 May 2022. [European Union, 2022]

The European Union slashed greenhouse gas emissions 34% below 1990 levels by 2020, overshooting the bloc’s target of 20%, according to official data submitted on Tuesday (31 May) to the UNFCCC.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) on Tuesday submitted official EU data to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The 961-page inventory report confirmed preliminary data suggesting the European Union was on track to smash its 2020 climate goal.

The EU had already reduced its emissions by 26% in 2019 and had achieved its 20% target before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns started to impact emission levels, the EEA said.

Emissions dropped by 11% in 2020 alone as EU countries shut down their economies to contain the coronavirus outbreak, the EEA indicated, admitting that the COVID-19 lockdowns “had a substantial impact on reducing emissions in 2020.”

Still, “the data confirms a 30-year downward trend which led to the EU achieving its 2020 target to reduce emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels,” it said in a statement.

Europe on track to smash its 2020 climate goal, EEA says

Greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union dropped by 3.7% last year, bringing the bloc on track to smash its 2020 emission goals by 4 percentage points, according to the European Environment Agency.

Over the past thirty years, EU emission cuts were driven mainly by the growing use of renewables and replacing coal with gas in electricity generation.

The report showed that coal use saw an unprecedented decline and was three times lower in 2020 than in 1990.

The EEA said that lower demand for heating due to warmer winters in Europe also played a part.

But although manufacturing industries recorded an overall drop in emissions, there were notable exceptions with transport, refrigeration and air conditioning, whose emissions rose by 53 and 80 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent respectively, the report showed.

While almost all EU countries managed to reduce their emissions, the drop was mainly due to the UK and Germany, which accounted for 47% of the total net reductions over the past 30 years, the EEA remarked.

With the UK leaving the EU in 2020 and emissions rising again after the coronavirus pandemic, the figures may not look so rosy in future reports.

Emissions jumped by 18% in spring last year as the economy recovered from pandemic shutdowns, according to EU data published last year. And Europe’s exit from coal was stopped in its tracks in 2021 because of rising gas prices, which discouraged the coal-to-gas switch.

“The 2019-2020 drop of 11% is good news from a climate perspective, but likely mainly caused by COVID and the associated decrease in overall economic activity,” said Wijnand Stoefs from Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit group.

“We expect the 2021 and 2022 numbers to bounce back – for example, the EU ETS emissions already rose 7.3% in 2021,” Stoefs pointed out, referring to the EU’s carbon market, the Emissions Trading Scheme.

“As the EEA has made clear, there is a serious risk of a rebound in emissions,” added Camille Maury from the WWF’s European Policy Office. And the ongoing reform of the EU carbon market “isn’t on track to deliver our climate neutrality goals,” she said in emailed comments to EURACTIV.

Gas crisis brought Europe’s coal exit to a halt in 2021: study

The European Union’s efforts to phase out polluting coal power was stopped in its tracks by the surge in gas prices, according to a new analysis of 2021 electricity market data by the financial think-tank Ember.

Overall, environmental groups were not impressed by the EU’s track record, saying the bar for 2020 was set far too low.

“The 2020 targets were just insufficiently ambitious, so were reached without real effort,” Stoefs said. “The lesson here is we need more ambitious targets, including for 2030”.

“Hitting a too-low climate target due to a temporary economic slowdown is nothing to celebrate. Aiming for or hitting targets lower than what science says is the EU’s share of keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees is an abdication of responsibility,” said Silvia Pastorelli, Greenpeace EU climate campaigner.

Under the European Climate Law approved last year, the European Union aims for a 55% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 before hitting net-zero by 2050.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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