Drone shut of coal-fired power plant operating in twilight.

EU’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to fall as coal ditched

Greenhouse gas emissions in the EU continued their fall in 2018, the latest year for which comprehensive data is available, according to a new report from Europe’s environment watchdog.

Emissions fell by 2.1% compared with 2017, to a level 23% lower than in 1990, the baseline for the bloc’s emission cuts under the UN’s climate agreements. If the UK is excluded, the decline since 1990 was smaller, standing at 20.7%.

The continuing fall, revealed in a report by the European Environment Agency, came as the result of EU-wide and country-specific policies, with energy generation showing the biggest decline in emissions as coal was phased out further and renewable power increased.

Carbon dioxide emissions from transport flattened off in 2018, after rising for the previous four years, giving hope that this major source of emissions may be brought under control.

However, emissions must be brought down much further and faster to satisfy the EU’s obligations under the Paris agreement, campaigners said. Annual falls of about 7% are estimated to be needed to keep global heating within the Paris upper limit of 2C above pre-industrial levels.

The economic turmoil and disruption caused by the coronavirus is likely to result in a short-term drop in emissions, as it has so far this year across the world, but the longer-term impact is unknown.

As people return to work, and governments try to stimulate the economy, emissions are likely to rise again, and some behavioural changes – such as avoiding public transport and the resumption of air travel on emptier planes – may increase emissions beyond the level of recent years if measures are not taken to rein them in.

This week, the UN decided to postpone vital talks on the climate crisis by a year, from this November to November 2021. The hiatus is longer than many countries had wished, but was deemed necessary given the disruption caused by lockdowns.

Green groups urged governments to link the recovery from the coronavirus with the need to reduce carbon, ahead of the Cop26 talks, and said the year’s delay must not be allowed to slow down action on the climate crisis.

“A 2.1% emissions drop isn’t nearly enough to avert massive climate breakdown, and we absolutely cannot lose sight of the urgency of this task,” said Aaron Kiely, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “Postponement of the climate talks cannot come at the cost of international climate action – it doesn’t give governments a get-out clause from their international responsibilities. There is a way out of both [the climate and coronavirus] crises if we collaborate, listen to the science, and stop losing time.”

Although the European commission set out its initial plans for a green recovery this week, there is still no guarantee that member states will also take the actions needed to ensure long-term emissions reduction as the lockdowns ease.

Mark Breddy, Greenpeace’s EU spokesman, said: “There is a real risk that the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan will be a lifeline for fossil fuels and other polluting sectors. We’re already seeing governments pump billions into airlines and carmakers with no real green strings attached. To get back on track ahead of next year’s climate summit, the EU needs to adopt a target to cut emissions by 65% by 2030, in line with the Paris agreement.”

The difference between the EU’s emissions fall with the UK as a member state and the smaller decline without the UK’s contribution also highlights how the EU will have to step up its efforts after Brexit. A large part of the UK’s emissions cuts since 1990 came from an early switch away from coal to gas, but more recent falls have come from an increase in renewable electricity generation.