A climate-neutral Europe by 2050

Chris Simoens
27 March 2019
Did you know that the European Commission has a well-defined and feasible climate strategy at the ready? The aim is for the EU to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 and to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Glo.be offers a glimpse into the EU’s plans.

There is no denying climate change. In recent years, temperature records are being broken at an alarming rate and polar ice caps are melting. In its latest report, the UN climate panel (IPCC) made it abundantly clear that we urgently need to adopt far-reaching measures. If we want to keep temperature increase to below 1.5°C, we must reach net-zero carbon emissions (CO2) by 2050.

Yet many of us continue to drive our petrol or diesel cars and heat our homes with gas or fuel oil, fossil fuels that release a lot of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas, into the air. We need to get rid of these practices, but how? Are there alternatives available that are affordable for everyone?

Many people have the impression that the governments are slow to react, despite the urgency of the situation. This causes unrest, especially among young people, who fear the world might become uninhabitable by 2050. Yet there is hope. Technically, the Paris climate agreement remains on track. Only the climate ambitions need to be strongly raised. Many countries are therefore working hard on a comprehensive climate plan, and the same goes for the European Union.

The meticulously detailed strategy builds on technologies that are already available today, although some, such as storing electricity in batteries, are still in their infancy.

A feasible strategy

In November 2018, the European Commission adopted its long-term climate strategy for the European Union (EU). The EU thereby aims to become the first major economy to go climate neutral by 2050. In doing so, the EU would also automatically meet the requirements to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

The good news? It is feasible. The meticulously detailed strategy, which covers 393 pages, builds on technologies that are already available today, although some, such as storing electricity in batteries, are still in their infancy. Extensive research and innovation is still needed, but that is not insurmountable.

The strategy also does not paint an ideal world that humanity can never live up to. We do not all have to become vegetarians or stop travelling, nor does the strategy expect governments to completely phase out nuclear energy. To estimate the share of nuclear energy the EU officials simply used the existing plans of the Member States for 2050. Returning to medieval living conditions is not what this is about either.

 

The EU strategy does not provide for nuclear energy to be completely phased out. It is simply based on the existing plans of the Member States.

A series of solar panels with a nuclear power plant in the background in the Czech Republic.
© Shutterstock

Eight scenarios

The EU strategy does, however, go far beyond the continuation of current trends by proposing a profound transformation of technologies and customs. Five basic scenarios have been developed, each with a different focus (see box): electrification, energy efficiency, large scale production of hydrogas (H2), circular economy (reuse and recycling) and e-fuels.

E-fuels are similar to fossil fuels, the difference being that they are a man-made source of renewable energy produced by combining H2 (produced by electrolysis, a chemical process) and CO2 (carbon gas captured from the air or remaining after combustion). Although CO2 is released after the combustion of the e-fuels, no extra net carbon is released into the atmosphere.

These five scenarios achieve 80 percent greenhouse gas emission reductions. A sixth scenario, which combines elements of the first five scenarios, reaches net greenhouse gas reductions of 85 percent. All scenarios could achieve an additional 5 percent decrease through the possibility to store carbon in forests, plants and soil (the so-called natural 'carbon sink'), reaching reductions of 85 and 90 percent respectively. But that is still not 100 percent.

 

View of an attic that is being insulated.
© iStock

Carbon capture and storage

The EU strategy is based on the assumption that there will always be a minimum of greenhouse gas emissions. After all, agriculture, the main source of emissions of methane (cows) and N20 or laughing gas (through overfertilisation), will remain indispensable, not only for food production, but also for fibre production for industry and biomass for energy generation.

How can these unavoidable greenhouse gases be compensated? Scenario 7 (1.5TECH) mainly combines the combustion of sustainable biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS). The CO2 that is released is captured and can then be permanently stored in the soil. C02 can also be used as a raw material, for example to make plastics or building materials.

Finally, scenario 8 (1.5LIFE) wants to achieve complete greenhouse gas emissions neutrality by (1) promoting even more economical or 'rational' energy consumption (lowering the heating, only heating the rooms needed...), (2) offering alternatives to aviation (making train traffic cheaper, video conferencing to limit the number of business trips, ...) and (3) reducing meat consumption compared to current patterns. The proposed meat consumption is in line with the daily amount of red meat recommended by the World Health Organisation. 

The article 'Building blocks for a climate-neutral Europe' provides more examples of how the EU wants to achieve this drastic greenhouse gases reduction. Fact is that scenarios 7 and 8 go far enough to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

 

A high-speed train at Hamburg station.
© iStock

Costs and benefits

Such a far-reaching transition inevitably comes with a price. Investments in the energy system, for example, would have to increase from 2% to 2.8% of the EU’s GDP, representing an additional investment compared to the baseline of 175 to 290 billion euros a year. To this end, the EU has already earmarked several investment funds intended to purposefully redirect the economy.

We should not, however, focus solely on the costs, since the investments will also bring the EU many benefits. The savings from the reduction in fossil fuel imports, for example, will amount to 2 or 3 trillion euros over the period 2031-2050. Europe’s  energy import dependence, standing at 55 percent today (mainly oil and gas), will fall to 20 percent in 2050. Strict climate action will also enable the EU to prevent many climate disasters and their associated costs.

The climate strategy also goes hand in hand with greater environment care. Electric cars will reduce city pollution, the oceans will be cleaner, trees and green spaces will provide healthier air, biodiversity will have more opportunities... All of this will have a positive impact on people's health and reduce, among other things, the number of people affected by lung diseases and cancer. Here too, costs are saved.

The savings from the reduction in fossil fuel imports will amount to 2 or 3 trillion euros over the period 2031-2050.

Fair transition

The EU strategy also places a strong emphasis on the need for a fair transition. Measures must be developed to spare the vulnerable. After all, the transformation can only be successful if it includes everyone. People who are less well-off must also be able to fully benefit from the opportunities brought about by living more carbon-efficiently.

Furthermore, the EU strategy does not exclude economic growth. On the contrary: carbon-neutrality should not prevent the EU economy from more than doubling its 1990 size by 2050, since many 'green' jobs would be created. The coal sector and oil extraction will inevitably suffer from the transition, but this will be compensated by new jobs. Other sectors - the car industry and energy-intensive industries such as cement, chemicals and steel - will have to use renewed processes, while their staff will have to acquire new skills.

 

Everyone participates

The strategy can only succeed if everyone participates. Every sector will have to adapt, and every individual citizen will have to adopt new habits, such as charging an electric car instead of refuelling. Yet the behavioural change that is required will not be extreme.

The EU will make efforts to get all citizens on board by raising socially equitable environmental taxes, putting a price on carbon emissions and adapting subsidy rules. In doing so, the EU will heavily rely on cities, which are already leading the way today.

The EU is, of course, not an island. It cannot limit global warming to 1.5°C on its own. All countries must participate if we are to succeed. By  being strongly committed to 'energy and climate diplomacy' as well as international cooperation, the EU wants to set an example to other countries. It will also provide support to developing countries to help them on their way to become a climate-neutral society.

 

A lot of metal scrap with a bulldozer.
© Shutterstock

What is next?

This year, the European Council will have to decide on the level of ambition. Then the real plan can be worked out: how do we want to achieve our goals? The Member States will have their say too. The EU wants to turn this into a broad debate in which everyone is involved: EU institutions, national parliaments, businesses, non-governmental organisations, cities and municipalities, and, of course, the citizens, particularly young people. This process should ultimately lead to an ambitious climate plan that the EU intends to submit to the UN Climate Commission (UNFCCC) at the beginning of 2020.

 

Learn more about the components of the EU Climate Strategy in our article 'Building blocks for a climate-neutral Europe' or read the summary of the EU Climate Strategy.

Many thanks to Koen Meeus (Federal Climate Change Service) and Niels De Schampheleire (Flemish Energy Agency) for their input.

The eight scenarios

 

The EU climate strategy proposes eight scenarios.

 

All scenarios include advanced renewable fuels, digitalisation, a certain degree of circular economy (re-use and recycling), more efficient transport systems, gradual deployment of low carbon technologies ('learning-by-doing'), higher energy efficiency after 2030 and carbon capture after 2050. Nuclear energy will continue to play a limited role.

 

  1. Electrification (ELEC)

 

Extensive electrification is taking place in all sectors: transport, industrial processes, etc. Heat pumps are often used in buildings.

[-85%]

 

  1. Hydrogen (H2)

 

Hydrogen gas is used to replace fossil fuels for heating, industrial processes, transport, etc.

[-85%]

 

  1. Power-to-X (P2X)

 

E-fuels and e-gas are used in industry, transport and buildings.

[-85%]

 

  1. Energy efficiency (EE)

 

The main focus is on far-reaching energy efficiency. Buildings will be renovated more.

[-85%]

 

  1. Recycling economy (CIRC)

 

Raw and other materials will be used more efficiently. The industry recycles and reuses more. Buildings are extra durable.

[-85%]

 

  1. Combination (COMBO)

 

This scenario includes a cost-effective combination of the previous five scenarios.

[-90%]

 

  1. 1.5°C Technical (1.5TECH)

 

Similar to COMBO but stronger and with more carbon capture and storage. Limited increase in natural carbon storage ('carbon sink').

[-100%]

 

  1. 1.5°C Sustainable lifestyles (1.5LIFE)

 

A combination of COMBO and CIRC, but stronger. Lifestyle changes: less meat, alternatives to air travel, more economical heating. The natural 'carbon sink' is strengthened (including more forests).

[-100%]

 

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About the same theme - Article 3 /12 Building blocks for a climate-neutral Europe