Europe’s climate crisis? It may well turn out to be a climate scandal for which polluters are ultimately responsible.
It’s not the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by human beings that’s the problem. It’s the price we pay for our addiction to fossil fuels. As a growing number of European policymakers understand, fossil fuels are not the next meteor falling to Earth, but a substance that is deliberately and artificially cheap, allowing us to grow and therefore unthinkingly pollute more. And since the EU and other major polluters do not conduct greenhouse gas inventories, there’s no telling how much CO2 we are polluting up until now.
To be precise, scientific estimates put the current amount of CO2 pollution in Europe at 11.5 gigatons a year. That’s about as much CO2 pollution as the United States emits annually. But our ability to measure it and attribute it to industry and individuals is still lacking. The new European Union climate-plan initiative to measure emissions, Renewable Sources: The EU Common Allowances Project (EU CANS), will be the first of its kind. Given that earlier emissions-projecting attempts in the 1990s were widely criticized, the lessons learned to date might serve as a solid guide. According to the science, the amount of CO2 pollution in Europe today may be two or three times higher than we think. That’s bad news.
Looked at in terms of climate change, the potential difference is drastic. While the impact of temperature rises will be felt in European countries like Spain, France, and Germany—Italy and Luxembourg are also vulnerable—future temperatures could rise significantly further in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. With rising CO2 pollution, these places may see temperatures rise six to 12 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The deal is that more CO2 pollution means more emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. As warming progresses, enhanced rates of evaporation and loss of soil moisture, which result from increased CO2 concentrations, will increase the intensity of ocean and land-water vapor. A 4-degree increase in the international temperature target means as much as a 20 percent increase in average sea level rise and 50 percent more deforestation by 2050.
The problem, then, is how our political leaders are pricing the greenhouse gases we are currently emitting. Until recent measures like the EU CANS, greenhouse gas prices have been extremely undervalued. The problem is more that CO2 regulation isn’t based on historical estimates. It’s only from 2019 onwards that carbon emissions will start to be calculated using what would have been equivalent to measured electricity costs back in the 1990s.
In real terms, the assessment still ignores the impact of climate change because an equivalent price for different CO2 sources would have a wider impact. If, for example, Europe reduces its carbon emissions by adding one euro per kilowatt-hour of electricity production, then it should also reduce its average carbon emissions per ton. All else being equal, this means that a cost-adjusted price for CO2 would have to be 0.03 euros per kilowatt-hour of electricity.
Without a price on carbon, the “war on coal” is harmful not only for global climate but also for energy security. Europe’s dependence on coal-fired electricity has surged over the past decade. Most recently, in the third quarter of 2017, European electricity production made up just over half of electricity production in the EU’s 27 member states.
Unless governments act, the climate-cost advantages of renewable energy will be lost. By 2021, 70 percent of Europe’s electricity is likely to come from renewable sources, while only a quarter from fossil fuels. But renewables only generate about 80 percent of their total energy needs when the sun is shining. In order to keep electricity production up, either new coal or nuclear energy will be needed.
Unless politicians are willing to pay a stiff price for CO2, Europe will not be able to wean itself off coal, let alone embrace a clean-energy future.
Geoffrey Supran is a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and co-author of a new paper, “The Unmanageable Carbon Content of U.S. Power Generation.” James Oberg is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the co-author of a new paper, “The Fukushima Effect and Modern Coal.”