Graphic of the Week: How to reduce emissions fast enough?

Three countries and one energy policy that have achieved required CO2 emission reduction rates - and one who hasn't

Three countries and one energy policy that have achieved required CO2 emission reduction rates – and one who hasn’t

According to most estimates, we really are running out of time for the required CO2 emission reductions. Even if we were to achieve peak emissions by 2016, we’d still need global emission reduction rates of around 3% per year – all the way to 2050.

Fortunately, such rates may be achievable. In fact, three countries have been close – by accident.

The sad state of current climate policy is nowhere so evident as in the fact that the fastest emission reductions have been achieved without any climate policy at all. Sweden, Belgium and France all achieved extremely rapid (that is, compared to anything else) rates of decarbonization as a result of their other energy policies. Compared to generally acknowledged leader of climate policy, Germany, their success is remarkable – or, if you like, the lack of success from Germany is highly disturbing.

Anti-nuclear advocates counter with a claim that Germany has been exemplary in reducing its emissions from 1990 levels. This may be so, but such claim ignores two very salient facts. The first fact is that these other nations achieved their substantial reductions before 1990; therefore, comparing their emission reductions since 1990 to Germany is fundamentally unfair.

The second and even more salient point is that much of Germany’s vaunted achievements are due to so-called “wallfall” effect. In 1990, Germany had just been unified, and former East Germany still operated a number of awesomely ineffective and polluting coal plants and factories whose emissions counted towards the German 1990 totals. These were for the most part closed or extensively modernized in the five years following the unification. A study by the respected Fraunhofer Institute in Germany put the impact of these wallfall reductions to around 50% of all emission reductions achieved between 1990 and 2000, and 60% of energy-related emissions.

While I welcome any emission reductions irrespective of how they’re achieved (well, almost), there are no valid reasons to ascribe wallfall reductions to any climate policy. Therefore, there are no valid reasons to use Germany’s performance as a proof of its climate policy, without removing the substantial wallfall effect. And when these one-off windfalls are removed from the equations, the performance of Germany’s policies looks, quite frankly, rather dismal.

Here’s a hint to politicians: if your policy is repeatedly outperformed by lack of policy, it might be a time to consider alternatives.

PS. These figures were inspired by Global Carbon Project research (PDF link). The slight differences in reduction percentages (e.g. Sweden 4.5% in GCP) are due to the fact that I used per capita emissions, while Global Carbon Project used total emissions. Emission data is from CDIAC; figures for Germany before 1990 are combined East & West Germany totals. 

About J. M. Korhonen

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5 Responses to Graphic of the Week: How to reduce emissions fast enough?

  1. Same graphic in Finnish is here:

    Feel free to e-mail these, print them out or otherwise bring them to public attention – we need realistic debate about the means of combating climate change.

  2. A very good post.

    There is one very important lesson we should take from the current shale gas boom in the US. The ”unintentional” cuts in the emissions of the power sector due to the shift from coal to gas shows that fast cuts are possible if the process is “organic”. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones analogy works here rather well. There is no reason why nuclear could not repeat elsewhere what it did in Belgium, France and Sweden.
    If the costs can be driven down so that nuclear can compete with coal then decarbonization is only a matter of time.
    Oh yes, and the narrative around the tech has to change. Simple 

    Btw. have you the math for US emissions in the past 10 years?

    • I’m afraid you’re right. The ONLY way deep enough emission cuts will happen is if non-fossil energy technologies becomes cheaper than fossil energy – or at least cheap enough so that the extra premium will be accepted.

      But I despair because on a large scale, even nuclear – even though it’s closest to the mark – isn’t close enough. And then there are those narrative issues.

      I don’t have the math for the US right now, but could do it sometime later. I’m under the impression that cheap gas has done wonders regarding short-term emission reductions, but I can’t help but to think of this every time someone speaks of gas as a solution to climate change (whether as a direct solution, or in support of renewables etc.):


      Besides, the real impact of gas is somewhat unclear. If fugitive methane emissions are above 2% or so, it’s in reality no better than coal, even though current carbon accounting may claim it is. And there is evidence for fugitive emissions going north of 11% in some cases. The jury is still out, there are arguments for and against, as well as proposed technical fixes which may or may not prove feasible.

      Personally, I’m of the opinion that fugitive emissions can probably be controlled in traditional gas fields, but fracking presents an all new set of problems.

    • But I digress – how would you propose pushing down the costs of nuclear? 🙂

  3. Pingback: The challenge (Part 1) : IPCC WGIII report on mitigation | PassiiviIdentiteetti

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