irst the good news: according to a 15 July press release issued by the European Environment Agency “emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases from the European Union have fallen slightly after two years of increase, taking the EU a small step closer to its target of an 8% cut within the next eight years.”

The fall certainly was slight, 0.5% between 2001 and 2002, the latest years for which full data are available. But it is better than the increases of 0.2% and 1.3% recorded in 2000 and 2001, respectively, for emissions of the six greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride).

The European Environment Agency ascribes the reductions to, amongst other things, warmer weather in most EU countries, which reduced the burn of fossil fuels needed to heat homes and workplaces, slower economic growth in manufacturing industries, the continuing shift from coal to gas and what it calls “specific measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The fall in 2002 took total EU-15 emissions to 2.9% below their level in the base year, 1990 in most cases.

While this is of course a step in the right direction, the less good news is that, according to the European Environment Agency press release, “assuming the 8% reduction between base year and 2008-2012 were to follow a linear path, emissions should have fallen 4.8% by 2002.”

The Agency estimates that on this basis only four countries are on track to meet the individual national targets that the EU-15 countries have adopted to ensure that the EU as a whole meets its commitments under the Kyoto protocol. The countries have adopted a system called “burden sharing” under which each of the 15 member states has agreed to a percentage by which it must reduce, or in some cases can maintain or even increase, its emissions, so as to result in the overall EU reduction of 8% by 2008-2012. The four frontrunners, currently meeting, or more than meeting, their Kyoto commitments on this linear assumption are France, Sweden, Germany and the UK. Germany and the UK between them account around 40% of EU emissions. In the UK a key factor has been power market liberalisation, which, fortuitously for carbon dioxide emissions, has resulted in a shift to gas, while in Germany major contributors have been increased efficiency of power plants and economic restructuring of the five new Länder.

Unfortunately though, on the same basis, “the other 11 pre-2004 member states are heading towards overshooting their emissions targets, some by a substantial margin.” Notable in this regard are Portugal, Ireland, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Greece and, in particular, Spain. The European Environment Agency observes that “Spain faces a greater challenge to meet its target than any other member state.” In 2002 Spain’s emissions were 39.4% above their base year level, which somewhat exceeds the 15% increase that it is allowed between the base year and 2008-2012 under the EU burden sharing agreement.

Emissions of carbon dioxide, which accounts for around four fifths of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, dropped by a miniscule 0.3% between 2001 and 2002, but relative to the base year, 1990, have actually increased by 1.4% – largely, it must be said, because of growing emissions in the road transport sector.

So the EU as a whole has a long way to go to meet its Kyoto commitments. But the outlook could change markedly in the near future. The Agency notes that since 2002, a number of EU and national initiatives have been approved which “could lead to an acceleration of progress towards the Kyoto target.”

These include provisions under Kyoto for industrialised countries to invest in emission-saving projects in other industrialised countries and in developing countries ((known in the jargon as Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism, respectively). The Netherlands, Austria and Denmark, have invested heavily in such projects, for example, and therefore will be able to report substantial emissions reductions in the near future.

However, by far the most important initiative is introduction of the EU emissions trading scheme, due to start, at least in trial form, next January.

Supporting sequestration

While it hard to see how emissions, initially carbon, trading will pan out in practice, one beneficiary in the longer term, should the market develop as envisaged, is likely to be the technology of carbon dioxide capture and storage, or sequestration. The assigning of tradeable values to carbon dioxide emissions avoided will certainly incentivise work in the area, and it has been estimated recently by European utilities that if carbon emissions allowances were trading at upwards of about 20-30 euro per tonne CO2 then carbon dioxide sequestration technology might begin to be worth looking at for future deployment. At the same time there is a concerted effort around the world to get the costs down (for example by finding alternatives to “traditional” technologies such as the monoethanolamine (MEA) process, see pp 19-21) and to reduce the risks of adoption.

Meanwhile the concept seems to be enjoying a significant upsurge of interest. Ron Oxburgh, recently appointed chairman of Shell, in a recent Guardian interview, went so far as to say: “Sequestration is difficult, but if we don’t have sequestration then I see very little hope for the world.”