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EU Fossil Fuel Emissions Back to 1960s Levels – A Sign of Promise?

These are all hugely promising figures. They should be celebrated. Any sign of progress towards a world that doesn’t break the 1.5C temperature-increase threshold, that puts the world in a better place for future generations, that creates a more just world for people in vulnerable and exploited environments – any sign should be celebrated. However, celebrations shouldn’t lead to complacency, and that celebration shouldn’t colour the context favourably – revising the roles, causes, and convergences that produce these statistics.

So, let’s take a look at this statistical headline and discover what it tells us and what it doesn’t, and how the EU’s role in global climate goals compares to the UK’s.

Energy Generation

Through the first half of 2023, in the EU, according to a report from Ember, there were notable reductions in fossil fuel generation – in other words, the EU used less fossil fuels to produce the energy it needed. The difference was 17% from the first half of 2022 to that same period of 2023. To break that down further:

  • Gas generation: -13% year-on-year
  • Coal generation: -23% year-on-year (producing less than 10% of the EU’s energy for May)

Renewable energy generation saw an uptick across the calendar year in response to the fossil-fuel trends. 2023 saw the fastest recorded growth in renewable energy capacity across the last two decades. In raw figures: a 50% increase which amounted to 510GW.

Again, more raw figures from the first half of 2023 according to the Ember report:

  • Wind generation: +4.8%
  • Solar generation: +13%
  • Hydropower generation: +11% (a good recovery after 2022’s struggles due to drought)

These record rates of growth put the EU on track to reach bound pledges and political promises. This is also true for the wider world, thanks to other major countries significantly investing in renewable energy generation: China, for instance, were responsible for the installation of the largest share of the world’s solar installations in 2023 – actually eclipsing the world’s total installations from 2022. These investments are proving again and again necessary and – to use the language of governments and business leaders across the world – ‘viable’.

Renewable energy solutions – be it commercial solar installations, wind turbines, or hydropower, for instance – are beginning to account for more and more of the energy production across the world. They were responsible for more than 30% of the EU’s electricity during May and June 2023. 17 EU countries produced record-breaking shares of renewable energy generation across the first half of 2023, too – with numerous countries breaking 50% and 75% markers.

Energy Demand

2023 was a hot year. Reaching back in the records to 1850, there has been no year hotter than 2023. With an average temperature of 14.98C, it was 0.17C hotter than 2016 (the second-hottest year). What about the levels relative to the 1.5C target? Well, almost 50% were slightly above that figure, and November had two days which were 0.5C above that. It’s a critical time.

That heat, though, did contribute to lower electric demand across the year. However, prices were a significant contributor, too. The energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine caused a huge spike in 2022, particularly towards the end of the year, and while prices did fall in the first half of 2023, they were still way above pre-war prices. People reduced their energy consumption as a result, trying to keep a handle on their finances amid numerous economic hardships.

The EU did implement measures to curb demand through early 2023, though, in response to the energy crisis – both in terms of imports and price. (Russian gas pipeline imports were 75% lower in H1 2023 than in 2022).

Industrial efficiency is certainly helping – businesses need to save money, too. But, also, industrial hubs across major EU countries – especially energy-intensive industries – suffered from a lack of demand through 2023, which meant their energy consumption was lower, too.

All these contexts are very specific to 2023, if not the end of 2022, also, where these trends began. Favourable weather conditions and energy crises aren’t an enduring condition of the world. It’s possible demand will increase in 2024 as the El Nino effect dissipates and resolutions to the energy crises are found (one being renewable energies). 

Investments and efforts for progress are still absolutely required, despite the rosy statistics.

Energy Obstacles

Renewable energy generation is an easy option. They have obstacles. Negative prices is one instance – one that’s common to the UK energy market. When there are periods of low demand and high supply, electricity prices drop below £0, meaning consumers are paid to consume more electricity or are incentivised to become energy-intensive during those periods. Another instance is grid congestion. These obstacles are simply inherent in the existing energy system, one whose legacy still favours fossil fuels still, despite the improvements we’ve discussed above.

2023 saw a lot of ambition to overcome these obstacles – to create more stable grids to ease congestion and install supportive infrastructure like a streamlined permitting process. The EU’s pledges are promises, though, still require significant investment – and effort – to meet short-term and long-term commitments. The current targets? 

  • By 2030, there will be a 55% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions
  • By 2050, the EU will be net zero

New Energy Targets

Right now, the EU are drafting a bill that would create a target between those two dates. Two things are coming out about what’s being detailed in that draft. First is that, to reach the legally bound 2050 target, the EU must invest $1.64T every year starting in 2031. Last summer, the European Union Commission said it needed to invest $760B per year from 2023 to 2030 for the initial goal – that very first hurdle. So the 2031 budget will be a little over double that. This investment will go beyond renewable energy generation and impact sectors like agriculture, transport, and construction. It’s the full-scale investment necessary to achieve the goals – an investment that countries are, as yet, unwilling to see the scope of.

The investment does mean savings, though, with the draft suggesting that between 2031 and 2050, the EU could bank $2.61T from keeping the temperature within the 1.5C target and reduce import costs of fossil fuels by $3T.

The draft also outlines that, to reach the 2050 net-zero target, the bloc would have to be essentially net-zero by 2040 – seeing an 85%-90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. 

There is already push-back, mainly relating to the strict nature of the laws amid a time of economic hardships and ongoing conflicts in the region. Agricultural sectors across the EU, for instance, have been vocal and direct in their issues with new environmental legislation. Poor communication appears to the root of many of the resistances. EU diplomats suggest that countries will refuse the bill because the framing remains intentionally from the view of the planet, rather than technological, industrial, or economic, for instance. 

Long-held perspectives and habits are hard to break for governments and wealthy businesspeople – that’s one obstacle of rhetoric. The other is that every day people’s lives are already a struggle in many areas of the EU – and the UK – from austerity measures and neglect. Climate discourse can’t forget that the planet’s welfare can’t be separated from the people’s.

The UK’s Position in All of This

That final point is crucial for the UK. Rishi Sunak’s premiership has been defined by many different scandals, extreme policies, and divisive rhetoric – and, unfortunately, his party have placed climate recovery efforts at the forefront of his culture war. As the EU attempts to accelerate its efforts to hit net zero by 2050 with society-wide investments to live carbon neutrally – and, hopefully, in a just manner for a continent that is the fastest-warming on the planet – the UK has delayed its ICE car and van ban from 2030 to 2035, expanded with a viewing to ‘maxing out’ it’s oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and dismissed and refused efforts to make homes energy efficient. That’s a shortened list of the scaling back of the UK’s climate recovery efforts under Sunak.

Sunak’s attempts to avoid scrutiny on green issues by failing to appoint a successor to Lord Deben who leads the independent climate change committee and to stoke culture war flames with drivers and workers are his attempts to play politics before the general election. Much of the Tory party have practically accepted defeat at the next general election, but they are attempting various why-not plots to either oust Sunak or force an early election in a last-gasp attempt to cling to power. The party does not see climate change as a force of progress, as a means of economic growth, as a means of becoming a global leader. The UK government remains, unfortunately, far outside the EU, exactly where it wants to be.

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