According to official EU data supplied by the EEA to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the 2020 drop was the greatest in the EU since 1990, and total greenhouse gas emissions reached their lowest level since 1990.
From 1990 to 2020, greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 34% or 1.94 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The EU had already reduced emissions by 26% in 2019 and had met its 20% objective well before COVID-19 lockdowns began to affect emission levels.
“The 2019-2020 drop of 11% is good news from a climate perspective, but likely mainly caused by COVID and the associated decrease in overall economic activity,” said Wijnand Stoefs from Carbon Market Watch, a non-profit group.
“We expect the 2021 and 2022 numbers to bounce back – for example, the EU ETS emissions already rose 7.3% in 2021,” Stoefs pointed out, referring to the EU’s carbon market, the Emissions Trading Scheme.
“As the EEA has made clear, there is a serious risk of a rebound in emissions,” added Camille Maury from the WWF’s European Policy Office. And the ongoing reform of the EU carbon market “isn’t on track to deliver our climate neutrality goals,” she said.
Over the past three decades, growing use of renewables, less carbon-intensive fossil fuels, increases in energy efficiency, structural changes in the economy, and lower demand for heating due to warmer winters in Europe have all contributed to reductions in emissions.
In addition, the COVID-19 lockdowns triggered a recession in 2020, which had a substantial influence on reducing emissions.
All industries, except for transportation, refrigeration, and air conditioning, reduced emissions. The most significant decreases were in manufacturing and construction, electricity and heat generation, iron and steel production, and residential combustion.
Several measures, including considerable agricultural and environmental controls in the 1990s and climate and energy policies in the 15 years after 2005, have contributed to overall decreases in greenhouse gas emissions.
Almost all EU member states have reduced emissions since 1990, adding to the EU’s overall good performance. For example, the United Kingdom and Germany have generated 47 percent of overall net decreases during the last 30 years.
However, environmental activists were unimpressed with the EU’s performance, claiming that the 2020 goal was too narrow.
“The 2020 targets were just insufficiently ambitious, so they were reached without real effort,” Stoefs said. “The lesson here is we need more ambitious targets, including for 2030”.
“Hitting a too-low climate target due to a temporary economic slowdown is nothing to celebrate. Aiming for or hitting targets lower than what science says is the EU’s share of keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees is an abdication of responsibility,” said Silvia Pastorelli, Greenpeace EU climate campaigner.