EU greenhouse gas emission budget: implications for EU climate policies

Estimates of the EU’s greenhouse gas emission budgets for the rest of the century vary considerably but have one thing in common: the EU’s emission budget is very small and shrinking rapidly, reveals a study authored by Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf, Philipp Voß, Eike Velten and Benjamin Görlach, released by The Ecologic Institute in Berlin and consulted by

Faster and faster

Around 410 parts per million (ppm) – this was the atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration measured in April 2017. It is the highest GHG concentration in the atmosphere in at least the last 800,000 years. In 1850, the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere was at about 280 ppm. Between 1850 and 1950, GHG concentrations increased only by 40 ppm, while the increase was a staggering 180 ppm between 1950 and 2016. Emissions from human activities are the main cause of this increase, say the authors.

Specific GHG concentrations entail certain global warming potentials. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report of 2014, GHG concentrations must remain below 430 ppm CO2eq to have a 50% chance of keeping temperature increases below 1.5°C by 2100. For a 66% likelihood of keeping temperature increases below 2°C, concentrations should not rise above 450 ppm. In other words, GHG concentrations can only increase by an additional 30 ppm until 2100 to retain a 50% chance of keeping temperature below 1.5°C. Concentration may only grow by an additional 50 ppm to have a 66% chance of staying below 2°C. Staying below these atmospheric GHG concentrations requires that only a relatively small amount of GHG is emitted between now and 2100. Current estimates range between 680 Gt CO2eq for 1.5°C (>50% probability) and 1440 Gt CO2eq for 2°C (>66% probability) – for the period between 2010 and 2100.

With global greenhouse gas emissions (incl. LULUCF) of about 52 Gt in 2016, these emission budgets are shrinking rapidly. To stay within the budgets and to avoid the effects of uncontrolled global warming on human economies and societies, emissions have to decrease immediately and much more drastically.

How to stay well below 2°C

There is universal agreement, most recently expressed in the Paris Agreement, that the global average temperature should stay well below 2°C. That way, the worst effect of global warming on human societies can hopefully be avoided, which include increased sea level rise, increased frequency and intensity of droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, resulting in decreased food production, threatening the livelihoods of millions, and adding to already existing migratory pressures.

In other words, GHG concentrations can only increase by additional 30 ppm until 2100 to have a 50% likelihood of keeping temperatures below 1.5°C. GHG concentration can only grow by an additional 50 ppm to have a 66 % chance of staying below 2°C. GHG concentrations in excess of this value decrease the probability of keeping temperature increases well below 2°C.

With higher concentrations, it is still possible that the temperature increase might remain below 2°C, but it becomes less and less likely. It should be stressed that these IPCC findings date from 2014. New research by the IPCC is under way and due to be published in late 2018.

With the entry into force of the Paris Agreement (PA), 195 countries obliged themselves to hold the increase of global average temperatures well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to hold it below 1.5°C.

These obligations are legally binding, but there is no political agreement whether the PA also commits Parties, collectively, to stay below a specific GHG concentration in the atmosphere, despite the fact that science helps to translate the temperature goals of the PA into GHG concentrations targets of 430 or 450 ppm, respectively, for the 1.5° (50% chance) and 2°C targets (66% chance). The PA also obliges Parties to aim for peaking emissions as soon as possible and to pursue climate-neutrality in the second half of this century.

With its entry into force on November 4th 2017, the PA obliges the EU – and all other Parties – to ensure that its policies and targets make an adequate contribution to achieving these objectives.

EU – What needs to be done for an adequate contribution

In EU climate policy, the single most important instruments to ensure that the EU meets its obligations are the EU Emission Trading Directive (ETS) and the successor of the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD). The EU is about to finalize reforms of these instruments. As an additional key instrument, the new Governance Regulation for the Energy Union (GR) has potentially far-reaching implications for the implementation of the PA. This regulation is currently being negotiated.

In light of these reforms, but also against the background of the up-coming facilitative dialogue under the PA, the IPCC report on the implantation of the 1,5°C target under the PA, the adoption of Long Term Low Emission Strategies and updating of the EU’s nationally determined contribution in 2020, it is necessary that the EU takes a fresh look at its policies. In light of these political processes, the EU has to answer the question whether its laws and policies are capable of making an adequate contribution to the implementation of the PA – or not.

Against this backdrop, the study of the Ecologic Institute discusses and quantifies the EU’s remaining emission budget for the remainder of the century. It defines the EU’s emission budget as the EU’s share of remaining global emissions, not as the quantity of emissions that the ETS and the ESD allow Member States to emit. The paper explores necessary EU reductions until 2030, 2050 and beyond – as the EU’s meaningful contribution to global efforts to keep temperature increases well below 2°C. The paper also discusses the implications of the required EU reductions on its climate policies and laws and in particular for the EU ETS and the Climate Action Regulation (CAR)5, the successor to the Effort Sharing Decision. The paper does not analyze technical details of specific EU climate instruments.

Some calculations

If the EU’s emission budgets were based only on least-costs considerations, it would range between meagre 50 Gt (in 1.5°scenarios) or 90 Gt (in 2°C scenarios) for the period 2020 and 2100. With current annual emissions of about 4 Gt, the EU would have used up its 1.5°C budget by about 2032. In 2° scenarios, the EU budget could be exhausted by around 2042, are the key findings of the study.

If, instead, the budget were distributed purely on the basis of equity considerations, the EU emission budget would be much smaller. If, for example, the EU’s emission budgets were based on expected EU’s share in the global population in 2050, the budget for the period 2021 and 2100 would be 6.9 Gt in 2°C scenarios; the EU would have already exceeded its 1.5°C budget by 10.3Gt in 2020. It is noteworthy that the Paris Agreement (PA) requires emission reductions based on equity, but does not refer to least cost considerations. To have a reasonable chance to stay within the 1.5°C scenario emission budget, the EU should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 71% by 2030 and at least 95% by 2050 (compared to 1990) – if the emission budget is calculated based on least cost considerations.

Reductions of this scale would require the EU to reduce emissions up to 2030 at an annual rate of 293 Mt and between 2031 and 2050 at an annual rate of 69 Mt. To stay within emission budgets that are based on the EU’s share in the global population in 2050, the complete decarbonization of the EU economy as soon as 2023 would be necessary (2°C scenarios). In either case, the current EU 2030 target of reductions of 40% (compared to 1990) is clearly insufficient. It undermines the long-term reduction efforts of the EU.

Few scenarios

In conclusion, if the EU maintains its 2030 target of 40% and adopts a 2050 target of 80-95% – not an unlikely scenario – a linear trajectory would be in line with the EU 2°C GHG budget (least cost) but would exceed the EU 1.5°C GHG budget by 27-36 Gt CO2eq depending on the 2050 target being 80% or 95%. Moreover, these pathways would imply that the EU uses up 28.2-31% of the global 1.5°C GHG budget and 8.4-9.2% of the global 2°C GHG budget which will be left after 2017. Part of the problem is the 2030 target of a 40% reduction: this target is incompatible with the available 1.5°C GHG budget. If the EU were to remain on a linear path to this target and wanted to stay within the 1.5°C GHG budget, it would have to reduce its emissions to zero by 2036. For this reason, scenarios that remain within the 1.5°C GHG budget require steeper emission reductions by 2030. For instance, the EU would not exceed its 1.5°C GHG budget if it would reduce emissions by about 56% in 2030 along a linear trajectory. In this case, the

EU would be required to reach zero emissions by 2042. If the EU further emits GHG emissions by 2050 in the order of the 95% target, it would have to reduce its emissions by 63-71% by 2030.


This interview firstly appeared in the printed edition of Magazine, issued in June 2018.

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