The European Union & Global Climate Change: A Review of Five National Programmes

As we approach the third anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol and continue working to address the questions raised but not answered in the agreement, entry into force is increasingly the subject of climate change discussions. European Union (EU) countries have voiced their strong support for early ratification. With Kyoto targets that become legally binding upon the Protocol’s entry into force, how close these countries are to delivering the promised reductions is worthy of analysis and discussion.

This report reviews the progress of five EU member states whose emissions totalled nearly 60 percent of the EU emissions in 1990: Germany, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Austria, and Spain. As part of the Annex I group of developed countries, the EU member states agreed to a collective target to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. They have assumed national commitments at varying levels through Article 4 of the Protocol, which establishes that groups of countries may redistribute their emissions reductions in ways that preserve their collective goal. The five countries reviewed in this report have chosen varied approaches to cutting their emissions, with some similarities including voluntary agreements with industry and eco-taxes. Analysis suggests the following:

  • The EU will meet its Rio target to keep emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, largely due to reductions in the UK and Germany.
  • The UK is currently the furthest of the five countries below its 1990 level and is likely to meet its Kyoto commitment of a 12.5 percent reduction in 2008/12.
  • Germany, the EU’s largest emitter in 1990, may fall short of its Kyoto commitment (21 percent reduction) without further action; given the high level of political commitment and the recent proposal of additional measures, it is possible that Germany could achieve its target .
  • The three smaller countries are not on track: CO2 emissions from the Netherlands currently exceed 1990 levels by 17 percent, rendering it highly unlikely that it will reach its Kyoto target even if half its reductions come from emissions trading; Austria faces per capita emissions that are already low due to the high use of renewable energy — additional reduction measures will be very difficult and plans and programs are not now in place to deliver the necessary reductions; Spain is already close to reaching the level of emissions growth that it was allowed as a relatively poor country in the EU, with little indication that sufficient action will be taken to prevent exceeding its target.

The authors and the Pew Center gratefully acknowledge the following individuals for their review of previous drafts of this report: Tom Burke, Jos Delbeke, Hermann Ott, Karl Steininger, Pier Vellinga , Hauke Von Seht, and Anne Weir.

Executive Summary

Most member states of the European Union (EU) have been at the forefront of international efforts to mitigate global climate change. They have been leaders in proposing targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and developing policies for action. In 1990, the EU Ministers of Environment and Energy agreed that carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions of the member states would be no higher in 2000 than in 1990. Seven years later in Kyoto, Japan, the EU ministers agreed to reduce the EU’s GHG emissions by 8 per cent between 1990 and the period from 2008 to 2012 (2008/12). This reduction was apportioned among the 15 member states. The wealthier nations took a higher percentage of reductions, while the less economically developed nations agreed to moderate increases in emissions growth.

Although there is an overall EU target, actions taken to reduce GHG emissions are the responsibility of the individual member states. This report examines the response of five states: The Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom (UK), The Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, which in total contributed 60 per cent of the EU’s emissions in 1990. Germany and the UK — the leading emitters — contributed 46 per cent. The Netherlands and Austria are often considered leaders on environmental issues, while Spain was chosen because its emissions will be allowed to increase over 1990 levels. Progress made since 1990, obstacles encountered, and the likelihood of successfully meeting the reduction target within the time scale envisaged in the Kyoto Protocol are discussed. Government plans that have turned into action and plans for future implementation are also addressed. The political commitment of governments to reduce emissions and potential obstacles to reductions are examined.

The European Commission concluded in 1999 that the EU’s GHG emissions as a whole will be approximately the same in 2000 as they were in 1990, but that the stabilisation of emissions will largely result from the efforts of the two biggest emitters, Germany and the United Kingdom. Major factors in the reduction of GHG emissions have been the switch from coal-powered to natural gas-fired electricity production and rehabilitation policies in the former East Germany. Other measures, noticeably energy efficiency incentives and high gasoline prices (relative to the United States), played a part. However, in the future, the member states are likely to rely more on renewable energy, combined heat and power (co-generation) schemes, eco-taxes, voluntary agreements with industry, and a moderation of increases in emissions from traffic. Despite political difficulties over coal, nuclear energy, eco-taxes, and road transport, the authors believe that, generally, the political commitment to reduce GHG emissions remains strong.

The European Union’s strong support for action could be seen in its pressure for high targets at Kyoto. Power, however, lies with member state governments. Consequently Europe-wide action has been very limited, but all member states have taken action, and emissions would be higher but for this action. However, the 2000 emissions target will be achieved largely through reductions in Germany and the United Kingdom, although some member states — notably the Netherlands — will be well behind their individual targets. The European Commission estimates that emissions would increase by 6 per cent between 2000 and 2008/12 without further measures. Thus, in reality, the Kyoto target is a reduction of 14 per cent for the period from 2000 to 2008/12.

Germany, as the largest emitter in the EU, has long recognised the need to reduce GHG emissions. It has taken on the responsibility for the largest reductions: 252 million metric tonnes (mmt), equivalent to a 21 per cent reduction between 1990 and 2008/12. While action in Germany has been taken nationwide, the improvement in the German position to date — a reduction of about 17 per cent in GHG emissions from 1990 to 2000 — largely reflects the dramatic decrease in emissions from the former East Germany. This reduction is unlikely to continue at the same pace and meeting the Kyoto target will be difficult but not impossible. The government has a national programme that includes a reduction in coal use and production, voluntary agreements with industry, traffic measures, eco-taxes, and an emphasis on co-generation and renewable energy. German public opinion is mixed on the success of some of these measures, the need to use nuclear energy, and, indeed, whether Germany should have accepted such a large share of the EU’s obligation. However, there is little dissent on the need for action and the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has regularly stressed its importance. The German position is illustrated by the government’s keen desire to see the Kyoto Protocol enter into force by 2002.

The United Kingdom has historically had a high per capita level of GHG emissions. It has accepted a reduction of 12.5 per cent between 1990 and 2008/12, and has adopted a national target of about double this percentage. The UK has already achieved a 14.6 per cent reduction due primarily to substantial fuel switching from coal to natural gas. However, further reductions in this area are limited and, like all the EU countries reviewed in this report, the UK will have to contend with increases in transportation sector emissions. To ensure continued reductions, the government is relying heavily on several measures, including greater use of renewable energy, eco-taxes, and voluntary arrangements with industry. The country is also examining the possibility of a domestic emissions trading scheme. The UK does face political difficulties concerning nuclear energy, coal, domestic energy use, and traffic growth. The national target of obtaining 10 per cent of electricity generation by 2010 from renewables is ambitious. However, these difficulties do not yet threaten the fulfillment of the UK’s strong commitment to achieve its obligations under the Protocol.

The Netherlands is often considered an environmental leader and indeed was at the forefront of EU appeals for action on climate change at both Rio and Kyoto. However, the Dutch economy, which has grown faster than the European average, is energy-intensive, partly due to the country ’s large resources of offshore natural gas. Although the Netherlands has accepted a 6 per cent reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2008/12, it has increased its CO2 emissions by about 17 per cent since 1990. This increase brings into question the country ’s ability to reach its Kyoto Protocol target. The government has already stated that it intends to take advantage of emissions trading to meet half its target. Like Germany, the Netherlands is introducing a wide range of measures to achieve its goal and is promising more. These measures will affect some of the traditional strengths of the economy — the transport sector and its energy-intensive industries — and will involve further taxation. The Dutch commitment to reducing GHG emissions is very strong and the Netherlands has shown willingness in recent years to tackle other difficult problems, such as making its labour market more flexible. Nevertheless, it is difficult to be optimistic about the country ’s ability to meet its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.

Austria has a low level of per capita GHG emissions, largely as a result of its heavy reliance on renewable energy, particularly hydropower and biomass. It also has provided strong support for public transport — particularly rail. Austria has agreed to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol by 13 per cent between 1990 and 2008/12. From examination of the data available, this target may be more difficult to achieve than the Austrians envisaged. There may be less opportunity to expand the use of renewable energy than anticipated, and the Austrian government will not entertain the use of nuclear energy. The government is firmly behind actions to reduce GHG emissions and intends to meet its obligations. Because of the high use of renewables for energy production, the Austrian public appears to believe that the country has no great problem from emissions other than transport and could react against tougher measures.

Spain is the one country examined in this report that has been allowed increased emissions (15 per cent between 1990 and 2008/12) because of the country ’s need for economic development and relatively low level of per capita GHG emissions. Statistical information for Spain is more limited than for other countries covered, but GHG emissions between 1990 and 2000 appear to have increased between 11 and 13 per cent. Greater use of natural gas and renewables instead of oil and coal should help, but much will depend on political will in Spain and on pressure from other member states. Unless further action is taken, Spain will not meet its target.

The report draws a number of conclusions. However, no hard conclusion on the likelihood of the EU as a whole achieving its obligations by 2008/12 can be drawn. Much depends on the development of new programmes to form voluntary agreements with industry, accelerate renewable energy use in electricity generation, and increase the use of co-generation. Much also depends on the extent to which strong political commitments to reduce emissions can outweigh countervailing political pressures. Demands to slow the switch from coal-powered generation, reduce the contribution of nuclear energy without adequate replacement of its generating capacity from non-CO2 generation sources, and avoid restrictions on road transport could put member states off course. However, the political commitment to take action on GHG emissions appears generally to be strong and supported by public opinion.