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THE RACE TO NEUTRALITY

What a decade’s worth of data says about the EU’s progress on emissions

steam rises from several smoke stacks at a power plant behind a large green lawn.
REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo
Electricity in Europe is getting greener.
By Camille Squires
Published Last updated

Few industrialized regions have seen their emissions drop as rapidly as the European Union. Greenhouse gases (GHG) in the 27-country bloc are now 26% below their level a decade ago, having fallen every year since 2010, according to a new analysis by the EU’s statistics office.

The vast majority of these reductions are in the energy sector: household heating and cooling, and large-scale electricity, gas, and steam generation. While the energy sector is the largest emitter of GHG, it has also been the fastest to decarbonize thanks to the rapid expansion of wind, solar, and energy storage, and policies supporting the displacement of fossil fuels. Last year marked the first in which more of the EU’s electricity came from renewable sources than fossil fuels. The EU expects to close half of its existing coal-fired power plants by 2030.

Researchers have observed this same pattern around the world: many countries are seeing energy sector emission reductions outpace those in every other sector according to a study of 24 countries with declining GHG emissions.

Yet the EU is ramping up its climate commitments. In 2019, the European Green New Deal laid out a plan to cut the bloc’s emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. Getting there will take far more than the energy sector.

The next round of emission cuts will be even harder

Roughly 75% of the bloc’s emissions come from buildings, transportation, industry, and agriculture. EU transportation and agriculture emissions increased slightly between 2010 and 2021. Even after transportation emissions dropped sharply in early 2020, they are now up 6% over 2010.

Neither the EU, nor virtually any other country, is on track to meet their net-zero emissions targets limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

From a climate perspective, the energy sector is easier to rein in. For regulators, power sector emissions are relatively straightforward: a few companies (utilities) generate most of the emissions in a few places (power stations).  Government agencies have been monitoring and mitigating air pollution, including carbon dioxide, for decades.  Policies to do this are often in place. Thanks to the falling price of gas and renewable energy, utilities opt to procure new generation from low to zero-emissions sources on their own. Financial incentives can accelerate this transition.

That’s not the case in sectors such as heavy manufacturing, buildings, and agriculture. Zero-emissions technologies are often still under development. Carbon-free alternatives such as electric cars or hydrogen-fired “green steel” foundries are still not yet cheaper than their fossil-fuel counterparts. Governments must design more expensive interventions from carbon pricing to carbon border taxes to ensure emission reductions.

Despite the EU’s progress, it still has a long way to go. Emission reductions will need to happen faster than the pace over the last 11 years. At the current rate, EU member nations are set to miss the 2030 target of 55% reduction by 21 years.

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