Five things you need to know about: decarbonising Europe

by Jonathan O’Callaghan

Countries across Europe have, in the past few years, announced their intention to become carbon neutral in the coming decades. Some, like Norway, have targets for 2030, while others, like the UK and France, have goals that extend to 2050. Despite the differences, however, all have agreed to decarbonise, but just what will this entail, and how will it work?

We spoke to some experts in the field to find out what needs to happen for Europe to become carbon neutral.

1. It will affect everyone from individuals to industry

According to Dr Kirsten Dunlop, chief executive of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s climate knowledge and innovation community, which supports innovation for climate action, there are a wide number of areas that will need to be changed in order to reach near-term goals of total decarbonisation.

‘We are looking across the whole landscape,’ she said. ‘Decarbonisation is encompassing the physical footprint of cities, given that they produce more than two-thirds of emissions across Europe. The cities then expand into the peri-urban areas (near cities). And that then leads into the industrial landscape.’

The challenges are broad, with an ‘enormous range of things going on in different countries’, according to Paul Ekins, professor of resources and environment policy at University College London, UK. The major trends so far have been to move away from coal, switch to renewables and improve development of batteries to store renewable energy. But there is much more to be done.

‘In countries like the UK there is very insufficient housing stock heated almost entirely by gas, and that is going to have to change,’ said Prof. Ekins. ‘So that’s an enormous challenge for consumers, because everyone is used to having their own little gas boiler.’

2. We are currently not doing enough to decarbonise

For all the progress made towards decarbonisation, it is clear that we still need to be doing more. ‘The data shows that we are off track,’ said Pete Harrison, Executive Director for EU Policy at the not-for-profit European Climate Foundation. ‘Certainly, the plans for 2030 suggest we’re going to fall short (of the EU’s 2030 climate targets). So more needs to be done in terms of the policies to create real change in societies.’

Some of the major issues of decarbonisation remain political, namely whether people will be willing to vote people into power that will make the difficult decisions that will be necessary to become carbon neutral. ‘We’ve still got to see the real political action,’ said Prof. Ekins.

The world not only needs to increase its targets but also its ambition too in order to avoid the two degrees of warming set out in the Paris Agreement. And in order to achieve that, refined policy will be an absolute necessity, rather than empty promises.

3. Coal, housing and cars can all be ‘quick wins’

Alongside the larger goals of reducing carbon emissions across the board, there are some short-term solutions that we can be working towards. One of those is energy efficient housing, with numerous projects already underway to reduce the carbon footprint of people’s homes. ‘In certain homes, energy efficiency can be a quick win,’ said Prof. Ekins.

In the bigger picture, Harrison says the first step should be to phase out coal, which we’ve already started to see happen in Western Europe. ‘What we need to see is that trend spreading towards Eastern Europe,’ he said, ‘so that they can actually modernise their economies and keep up with the technology innovation curve rather than lagging behind.’

And, adds Harrison, Europe needs to get at the cutting edge of electric car technology ‘as soon as possible’, not only for the benefits that it will bring to the climate and air quality, but for competitive reasons too as other countries like China and the US make important strides in this area.

4. Individuals can make a difference

Dr Dunlop says that individual action is ‘essential’ to achieve our decarbonisation goals, including changing our eating habits away from meat, reducing our reliance on cars, decreasing the energy footprint of our homes and more. ‘Individuals making choices across the whole of Europe really starts to make a massive difference,’ she said.

One effort in this regard has been the Fridays for Future movement, inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, which has called on people to use no cars, eat no meat and avoid other carbon-heavy activities every Friday – a potential glimpse at what a decarbonised world could look like if we get our act together. Stirring people into action, however, is key.

‘There’s a well-known phenomenon in the literature called the attitude-behaviour gap (where people don’t act even if they care about an issue),’ said Prof. Ekins. ‘Clearly closing that attitude-behaviour gap is important. Something like energy efficiency in homes, it’s really inconceivable that the government is going to pay for that very considerable investment itself entirely. So yes, there are things individuals can do.’

The data shows that we are off track.

Pete Harrison, European Climate Foundation

5. Carbon neutrality will save money in the long run

Estimates for reaching a carbon neutral future by 2050 suggest that up to 2% of GDP will need to be spent annually. But if we can actually reach this goal, Harrison says that society stands to reap the benefits not just in terms of the climate, but from a financial perspective too.

‘An efficient, flexible, renewable energy system is cheaper for Europe than a fossil-based system,’ he said. In this scenario, ‘the costs (of Europe’s wider energy system) are actually reduced by 23 billion euros a year. Overall this is not a cost, this is actually a saving for society.’

On 25 September, Kirsten Dunlop will be participating in a session called Decarbonisation: pathways from vision to reality at the EU’s Research & Innovation Days to discuss the findings of a high-level panel on decarbonisation.

European Research & Innovation Days

The European Research & Innovation Days, which will take place in Brussels, Belgium, from 24 to 26 September, are designed to bring together policymakers, academics, industry, civil society and entrepreneurs to discuss how research and innovation can help tackle the major issues facing the EU over the next decade.

The idea is to seek a wide range of opinions from experts and interested parties about how to allocate the €100 billion planned for the EU’s next research funding programme, Horizon Europe. In addition to conference sessions, policymakers from the EU and national administrations will be available throughout the event in a space called Horizon Village to gather further input from participants.

The event, which is set to be an annual affair, consists of a policy conference to shape the Horizon Europe work programme, an innovation hub for innovators and investors to network, and a public exhibition called Science is Wonderful!.

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