The EU's Environment Agency (EEA) in a recent press release reports that member states continue to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and that values for 2008 were 11% less than levels recorded in 1990. Sources of the decline include the closure of manufacturing plant, reduced consumption of coal, increased use of gas and renewables (biomass, wind and hydro-electric) and improved use of energy. The recession that began in 2009 has further reduced emissions in the manufacturing, construction and transport sectors.
In practice, an examination of the changes reported shows they only cover operating (Scope 1 and 2) emissions and not the content of Scope 3 gases embodied in the manufacture of goods and services that member nations import into the European Union. When these are taken into account, it seems more than likely that consumption across Europe has actually raised emissions of greenhouse gases over the last 20 years.
An example of how claimed reductions for a European country are illusory can be seen in data developed for the UK by researchers at universities in Durham, York and Berlin (see paper with details of link below). Whilst the intensity of emissions from industry fell between 1992 and 2004 along with improvements in the efficiency of supply chains and changes in the composition of the average consumption basket of residents, those associated with the carbon embedded in goods and services continued to grow. This has resulted in an estimated net increase in UK emissions of some 13.5%. Other papers by Nadim Ahmad (OECD 2003), Carnegie Mellon (Green Design Institute 2007) and Dieter Helm (Oxford 2008) also point out how the emissions embodied in international trade and imported goods can distort claimed reductions at the national level.
Changes in the UK's Carbon Footprint, 1992 - 2004
Adapted from Figure 1, Understanding Changes in the UK's CO2 Emissions:
A Global Perspective. Environmental Science & Technology, Vol 44, No 4, January 2010
Results ignore trade between different manufacturing regions and use Monte Carlo runs to
determine a full range of potential errors and average outcomes (not shown on this graph)
At a qualitative level, this graph looks very similar to the proposed road-map for a lower carbon economy published in 2009 by the UK's Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC). It is easy for governments and their agencies to target or report a decline in emissions, but in practice they overlook or choose to ignore the imported greenhouse gas content of goods from other parts of the World which have increasingly replaced those that were manufactured within the region.
Another issue not clearly assessed in the EEA's report is how much the closure of manufacturing capacity in Europe has contributed to the growth of emissions in other regions. Perversely, claimed reductions may actually increase life cycle emissions at a global level if new plant is constructed to replace that which has been retired. There also remains the question of whether closures in Europe have been driven in part by opportunities for financial engineering since permits continue to be freely issued by governments, rather than purchased.