America and Europe: Who is taking the lead on emissions?

Pop quiz: Which OECD country has reduced its carbon emissions the most since 2006?

Most people will probably expect that it is a European country, perhaps Germany. The answer instead is the United States of America.

So, despite constant claims by American environmentalists that America should look to Europe to see how to reduce emissions, America is actually currently having more success in reducing emissions.

Is this trend likely to last? Let’s consider this year. Carbon emissions have not been reported yet for the US, however based on energy use it looks as if US emissions may be declining by 2-3% this year. What is happening in Europe? As I wrote before Europe is currently seeing a shift from gas to coal, and emissions may rise this year. This week’s Economist has a very good figure showing the dreadful state of the EU carbon price and the increase of coal consumption in the last 4 years.



Compare this increase in coal use with what is happening in the US:



Europe has also seen an irrational decision to move away from nuclear power plants while coal is still on the grid. In Germany this effectively means they have lost a decade in their attempts to decarbonise electricity.

Consider also that this year the US has decommissioned 8 GW of coal plants, and has not started the construction of any new ones. Couple the ongoing switch from coal to gas with new fuel efficiency standards on cars, and the potential of strong EPA regulations on power plant emissions, and it appears clear America is now likely to see ongoing emissions cuts in the next decade.

In the light of this it is perhaps worth reconsidering the common belief that the Obama administration is doing little about climate change, while Europe, and in particular Germany, is leading the way.

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14 thoughts on “America and Europe: Who is taking the lead on emissions?”

  1. Arguably the Obaba administration is NOT doing anything much about climate change….

    just that the economics of coal/gas is doing it for them?
    I’m sure they take the credit though.

    given that, if the fuel efficiency standards are a work of government, years behind the EU though. ie my 7 seater mpv can get 50mpg + and the public will buy these vehicles for that reason, not for the benefits of emissions reductions.

  2. I totally agree with you on the misconceptions on what countries have had the largest emission reductions. Replacing coal with gas where there is available capacity should be a no-brainer (given that methane leakage does not prove to be very high) and given a proper tax on carbon, or even just specific regulations on coal that could probably happen in Europe as well. Still think we need to think more long-term though, how do you make gas attractive enough to replace coal but prevent lock-in where long-term investment is made in gas infrastructure when it needs to be made in low-carbon sources?

    1. Anders

      That’s a good question. There is still a long way to go in switching from coal to gas in existing plants. I still think gas plant capacity factors are just over 40%, with coal slightly above 60%. Overall gas capacity in the US is now higher than coal, so it may be possible to almost half coal use simply by fuel switching.

      Gas “lock in” is still probably a good bit in the future. If you imagine a scenario where the US got 30-40% of power from renewables, then it will still need a lot of gas back up. There are regions of America where onshore wind, and maybe solar in a few years, is more economical than nuclear. So, a mix of renewables and nuclear is probably most likely. Unless storage comes along in the next decade most of today’s gas plants will be needed for quite a while.

      New wind capacity was actually the same as gas this year. Though I suspect the electricity generated by the gas plants will be between 50 and 100% higher, but very dependent on gas prices. Nuclear is going slowly, but a carbon price will probably bring it back in the game. The trends for new capacity may not be that bad. It’s also possible that a decision to export LNG from the US could impact the electricity market. These impacts are hard to predict. They make low carbon more attractive, but fuel switching less attractive. So, reasons for optimism about low carbon, but reasons for pessimism.

      1. Great response, and good points about capacity factors although I guess it’s in the nature of load-following plants that they can not be 100%? I’m just afraid that the utilities response to the uncertainty you describe will be to build all gas plants and pass on any price-fluctuations to the consumer. Myself being somewhat of an old school socialist think the respective governments should just build the bloody nuclear (or whatever low carbon fits the bill) plants at scale on their own dime and lease them to utilities. :) But I guess the British contracts-for-difference is the closest we might get to that in the current political climate. Will be really interesting to see how the EDF negotiations turn out, although I can already hear the doomsday pronouncements being penned by the usual Guardian comment-is-free crowd whatever the price turns out to be…

  3. At the moment the average US citizen is producing double the emissions of the average European. [ ] So, when it comes to emissions, the USA has the ‘advantage’ of starting from an highly profligate position and consequently I would expect them to very easily reduce their emissions by a greater percentage straight out of the starting gate. But can they keep it up?

    By the same reasoning, if they had the political will, I bet Qatar could more than halve their emissions overnight.

    1. John

      I agree partly with this. However, Europe had an advantage in that it was mostly de-industrializing anyway. Most of Europe’s emissions “cuts” are simply being exported to China. Certainly the UK’s carbon consumption has gone up, not down since 1990. The US’s current emissions reductions may even be higher when compared to Europe’s in a real terms. They are not coming at the expense of a loss of industrial competitiveness, which may lower carbon leakage to China. That of course is more a result of failed international diplomacy, or the unwillingness to put a carbon price on imports.

      I suspect the US will keep it up in the next 10-15 years, because a lot of it is now locked in. If gas prices stay low (and methane leaks are controlled) then coal will keep declining steeply. Fuel efficiency standards on cars should result in transporation emissions decreases. Real issue is whether a carbon tax can be put in place to get more significant cuts.

      1. I take your point, on exporting emissions, Robert. But you also make my point for me when it comes to cars. The US will be able to make huge strides on improving mileage — and hence emissions — because they’re starting with a large pool of inefficient gas-guzzlers. By contrast — driven by historically relatively high pump prices — the typical European car is small-engined, light and tends to be technologically sophisticated, and thus it will be more difficult for us to make the % efficiency improvements that the Americans will find it relatively easy to achieve in the coming years.

  4. Is a four-year comparison the most appropriate? Yes, in the very recent past, the US has reduced emissions, but not primarily because of a national climate policy (which doesn’t exist). The Great Recession and market forces accomplished the majority of US reductions. That said, the Obama administration, as you point out, has oriented the US toward further reductions in the next ten years while European nations have chosen alternative pathways.
    If we want to look at which nation has accomplished the highest level of emissions reductions, I think we should look at longer time frames: say 10 and 20 years. What has the US accomplished? A 6% reduction since 1999 and a 7% increase since 1990. Are there nations that have accomplished more? Yes: Belgium (-14% (since 1999), -6% (since 1990)), Czech Republic (-1%, -29%), Denmark (-15%, -6%), France (-6%, -1%), Germany (-10%, -21%), Hungary (-16%, -28%), Italy (-8%, -2%), Slovak Republic (-15%, -42%), Sweden (-26%, -21%), United Kingdom (-10%, -15%). The EU27 (-6%, -12%).
    The US chose to do as little as possible with respect to carbon emissions in the 1990s and 2000s. That situation started to change in 2009. European nations, while not wildly successful, did at least implement some plans. We should also not lose sight of the fact the US accounted for 26.8% of cumulative emissions from 1751-2010. When renewables account for 5-20% of the US energy portfolio, then we can say we’re making a difference.

  5. Robert,

    It depends on what you mean by “lead”. I think it would withstand the following interpretation:

    “Who of the major emitters has the most plausible plan to minimise their cumulative carbon emissions prior to a 2050 date for being post-carbon?”

    Which contains a revolution in how we produce, market, consume, and think about energy, both nationally, corporately, and personally. That triplet requiring legislation, finance and education respectively.

    My parents generation went from gas-lighting to advanced gas cooled reactors and I believe that any leading plan will be just as surprising.

    I happen to think that the personal aspects will be the most important in the long run, if I am to make any sense of a post-carbon world. Reducing carbon emissions, a bit here and a bit there now, is obviously of benefit but ultimately the problem will be us.

    Right now, intermittency would be a real problem, by 2050 it may have to be seen by us as either a lifestyle non-issue or a benefit, at least in terms of cost. I think that our relationship to energy will change markedly. Currently we treat it like air, but we didn’t used to, and we may go back to that. It can to be more like bread or milk, things that you have to plan for if you want them available.

    I think that in order to judge who is leading, the issue of which nation is best placed to change lifestyles is paramount. Under a democracy that requires informed consent which implies education.

    I wonder which nation is currently leading in terms of engendering new popular thinking about our personal relationship with energy. I think the vision is out there but the communication is poor. There is a revolution between now and post-carbon and getting people up to speed would be one measure of success,


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