With the recent news that the global atmospheric concentration of CO2 had reached 400 parts per million for the first time in around three million years, it was obviously good news that European Union’s 2011 carbon emissions were “lower than previously estimated”.
According to a press release from the European Environment Agency (EEA), EU emissions fell 3.3% in 2011. Not only was this its largest annual fall but, at 18.4% below 1990 levels, brings reported emissions to the lowest level in more than 20 years – though once international aviation is included, in line with the climate and energy package, emissions have actually fallen a still-impressive 17% since 1990.
The detailed data shows that the UK, France and Germany accounted for almost two thirds of the decrease in 2011, while the largest increases in the absolute volume of emissions were found in Romania, Bulgaria and Spain.
Fossil fuel consumption
However, while EU fossil fuel consumption fell 5% in 2011, the average carbon intensity of the fossil fuels used increased, with solid fuel consumption, such as hard coal and lignite, rising 2% between 2010 and 2011. Consumption of liquid fuel and natural gas fell 4% and 11% respectively, while biomass combustion increased by less than 1% in EU-27.
But 2011 saw the largest fall in consumption of renewable energy of the last 21 years in percentage terms, mainly due to a big drop in hydroelectricity production. To the probable dismay of the UK Independence Party, wind and solar power production continued their strongly increasing trend.
Nuclear power’s contribution to electricity supply was below the previous year, mainly due to the closure of power plants in Germany, according to Eurostat. Road transport emissions fell for the fourth consecutive year, while emissions from international aviation and shipping increased.
Meanwhile, early indications on EU emissions for 2012 suggest further improvements. Verified data from sectors covered by the EU Emissions Trading System, covering around 40% of total EU emissions, fell 2% between 2011 and 2012. Estimates published by Eurostat and based on monthly energy statistics of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion (covering around 80% of total EU emissions) also point to a 2.1% fall.
However, some of the shine from this announcement was removed with confirmation that 2011’s reduced emissions were “largely due to a milder winter, which led to lower demand for heating”. Which, given the continuing – and depressing – near-winter conditions that persist, certainly here in the UK, suggests that the falling trend might not be continued in 2013.
Still, EEA executive director Jacqueline McGlade took a generally positive view: “The 2011 emissions cut … was largely due to a warmer winter. Nonetheless, the EU is making clear progress towards its emission targets. There was an increase in consumption of more carbon-intensive fuels such as coal, while hydroelectricity production and gas consumption decreased.
“If Europe is to achieve the transition towards a low-carbon society, it will need sustained investment in technology and innovation.”