When the European Union first introduced its target to reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2020, it seemed like a tall order. But as 2020 gets closer, that target looks more and more achievable. In fact, Europe is so confident in its decarbonizing efforts that it recently doubled the target–a 40% reduction compared to 1990 levels–to be achieved by 2030.
As such, the European Union, which combines 28 countries, has the strongest platform of any bloc going into the Paris global talks on climate change this December. The U.S. target for 2030 is a 32% reduction, but only from 2005 levels, which were much lower than they were in 1990, so are easier to hit.
The question in Europe is where the reductions are coming from. One factor is simply that several European economies are in an awful state and that economies in an awful state tend to produce less carbon dioxide. But it does seem that policies encouraging renewable energy are paying off too. A report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center finds that solar panels and wind farms contributed about 25% of the carbon savings the EU saw from 2009 to 2012.
The effect is stronger in some countries than others. For example, renewable energy accounted for 35% of carbon emission savings in Germany and the U.K. between 1990 and 2012. Between 2009 and 2012, two-thirds of the reductions from renewables came from five countries: Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and Italy. Germany is undergoing a dramatic “transition” to renewables, perhaps the most ambitious anywhere. But the EU’s numbers don’t necessarily reflect those changes because they come too late to capture them. Germany wants to be using 55% to 60% renewables by 2035.
What’s not helping Europe is that its emissions trading system, which covers polluters like power plants, hasn’t been functional enough to raise the price of fossil fuel energy relative to renewables. The price for a ton of CO2 fell from 30 euros a ton in 2008 to about 7 euros in 2012, meaning there wasn’t much incentive to move away from more carbon-intensive sources. That suggests that renewables are taking off for their own reasons, not because the EU made a grand public intervention like carbon trading.