A package of measures

The industrial revolution led to a loss of natural habitats, deforestation and an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The result was climate change and loss of biodiversity. To reverse this trend, the entire European Research Area must be mobilised.

System for measuring CO2 flows in the open air. The infrared gas analyser is housed in a black box insulated from sediment by an aluminium casing. This equipment is used by researchers working on the PACOBA project, aimed at enhancing scientific knowledge about the Arguin Bank Bay region in Mauritania, in particular to improve environmental and fisheries management. © CNRS Photothèque/Erwan Amice
System for measuring CO2 flows in the open air. The infrared gas analyser is housed in a black box insulated from sediment by an aluminium casing. This equipment is used by researchers working on the PACOBA project, aimed at enhancing scientific knowledge about the Arguin Bank Bay region in Mauritania, in particular to improve environmental and fisheries management.
© CNRS Photothèque/Erwan Amice

Faced with a rising world population, growing industrialisation and dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, it is inevitable that our way of life will change. In April 2009, in line with its obligations under the Kyoto protocol, which ends in 2012, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted the energy/climate package of the European Commission (EC). The measures are ambitious, and rightly so! The environmental consequences of climate change are making themselves felt and there is a growing problem with securing energy supplies (1).

The EU-wide commitments for 2020 consist of a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with 1990 levels – or even 30% if an international agreement is reached – and a 20% increase in the use of renewable energy (electricity, heating, cooling, transport), which currently accounts for only 8.5%. These targets are weighted to ensure a fair distribution of effort among the various Member States. In addition, each Member State is being encouraged to raise the proportion of biofuels in transport to 10% between now and 2020, in compliance with environmental criteria for sustainable development and biodiversity protection.

Practical implementation

“The European emission reduction target is achievable, provided that we commit the necessary resources,” says Philippe Mathieu, professor of energy production at the University of Liege (BE), and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “The four tools for reducing GHG emissions are energy efficiency, renewables, nuclear energy, and CO2 capture/storage. As CO2 capture/storage will not be ready by 2020, we are left with the first three to achieve a 20% reduction by the 2020 deadline. Nuclear fission is an important part of the current landscape but does not provide a long-term solution because uranium is a non-renewable resource that poses a waste storage problem. We must therefore focus our efforts on making the energy system more efficient in terms of production, distribution and consumption, coupled with the massive introduction of renewable energy.”

The priority sectors for intervention are those that emit the largest quantities of CO2: industry, transport and housing. In terms of transport, rail must be given a more prominent role and we need to rethink road transport. Solutions already exist and have been implemented in some countries: such as urban tolls for cars in Singapore and London, Oslo and Stockholm or Switzerland’s road/rail ‘ferroutage’ system designed to reduce pollution and free up the roads.

“We also need to devise other solutions, such as encouraging car sharing, improving public transport and the rail system and promoting the use of less polluting power units, such as hybrid engines in the short term and fuel cell-powered electric engines in the much longer term,” explains Philippe Mathieu. In the construction sector, the top priority is to improve insulation in housing and major infrastructure, prior to installing facilities fuelled by renewable energy. “In Belgium, most of the houses built before 1960 have a similar level of insulation to houses built in a hot country like Greece! We also need to ban the use of heating oil and natural gas for hot water production and heating as soon as possible, and to promote the use of thermal solar panels, wood-fired heating and possibly geothermal energy.”

Finally, we need to raise individual awareness so that we all think about the hidden CO2 produced by everyday activities and consumer products. For instance, eating local foodstuffs in season contributes significantly to reducing CO2(2). In sum, the cleanest and cheapest energy of all is the energy we do not consume.

Renewable energy

Conventional forms of energy (coal, oil, natural gas and uranium) are running out and, in the end, we will have no choice: energy sources will need to be 100% renewable. “The goal of 20% by 2020 is achievable at European level if the techniques are geared to the type of energy resources available in each country: solar energy in southern Europe and wind energy in countries with wind-power potential (Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Scandinavia),” says Philippe Mathieu. We need to resolve problems with the intermittent availability and dispersal of renewables such as wind and solar energy, which are climate-led rather than demand-led. Further research is also needed to improve conversion efficiency, reduce costs and store energy. Distribution networks will have to be designed to suit decentralised production. Energy storage installations also need to be set up, such as the potential energy in waterfalls, electrochemical energy in batteries, calorific energy in water, or even carbon-free hydrogen production.

As for biofuels, the first generation has revealed their limitations. “Using biofuels that compete with food, or that require prior deforestation and subsequent exportation, makes no sense,” adds Philippe Mathieu. Strict criteria are therefore needed to ensure that the resources used for biofuels are both renewable and sustainable.

Are the measures sufficient?

Compared with other major GHG emitters, the EU is currently an environmental leader. In the United States, the Waxman-Markey bill, approved by the House of Representatives in June 2009 (3), proposes a 17% reduction in domestic GHG emissions between now and 2020 compared with the reference year (2005), which is significantly less stringent than the targets set by the EU (1990). “Russia and Japan have proposed reductions of around 10% compared with 1990 levels,” points out Andreas Löschel, head of the Environmental and Resource Economics, Environmental Management Department at Germany’s Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), adding that more restrictive international measures will undoubtedly be required to curb the effects of climate change. The IPCC is recommending cuts of 25% to 40% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, compared with 1990 levels. To be continued … at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Isabelle Noirot

  1. See the April 2008 research*eu special issue: Energy – Extracting ourselves from oil
  2. IPCC Chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, even recommends vegetarianism because livestock-rearing is a major source of greenhouse gases
  3. ec.europa.eu/energy/technology/set_plan/set_plan_en.htm
  4. ec.europa.eu/research/industrial_technologies/lists/list_114_en.htmlThe calls for projects can be seen on the CORDIS web site (cordis.europa.eu/fp7/dc/): Green Cars (GC), Energy-efficient Buildings (Eeb) and Factories of the Future (FoF).


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Greening the economy

Switching to a low carbon economy create new opportunities in terms of technological innovation. In 2007, the EC drew up a strategic plan for energy technologies called the SET plan(4), designed to speed up the development and deployment of cost-effective low carbon technologies. Under the European Economic Recovery Plan, the EC also set up three public-private partnerships in 2008: Green Cars, Energy-efficient Buildings, and Factories of the Future(5). The targeted sectors account for a quarter of all jobs in the EU and are also earmarked for priority action to ensure a greener future.