New data released by two think tanks, Ember and Agora Energiewende, reveals renewables surpassed fossil fuels as the European Union’s principal source of energy for the first time in 2020.
A record-breaking 38% of all EU energy usage last year was powered by solar, wind, hydropower, and bioenergy, in that order. And yet, the EU will have to maintain a steep upward trajectory if it hopes to reduce emissions by 55% in time for 2030, as outlined in the European Green Deal.
The triumph of renewable energy is a dose of positive news for the bloc, even if a significant portion of this energy shift could be attributed to Europe’s consecutive lockdowns. The burning of coal, which is responsible for most global carbon emissions, nosedived 20% in Europe over the course of 2020, but as Ember electricity analyst Dave Jones explains: “rapid growth in wind and solar has forced coal into decline but this is just the beginning”.
Nor is the shift to renewable energy happening at the same pace across member states. Denmark’s remarkable sourcing of 61% of its energy from renewables averages out significantly less positive results from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which generate less than 5% of their energy from renewable sources. In addition to the discrepancies between individual EU member states in the transition to renewable energies, another major – and underreported – stumbling block for Europe’s ability to meet its commitments may well be the EU’s own approach to plastic waste and pollution.
Should the EU’s Single Use Plastics Directive pivot to targeting more than just plastic?
As the Circularity Gap Report claims in its most recent annual publication, transitioning to a circular economy could cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide by 39%. The emissions generated by plastics, themselves produced from fossil fuels, play a significant role in the current economy’s carbon footprint, with Carroll Muffett of the Centre for International Environmental Law estimating the production and incineration of plastic could generate 56 billion tons of carbon “between now and 2050.”
While those numbers make clear the need for a fundamental economic shift, the European Commission’s handling of plastics is still the subject of lively debate. On paper, the EC takes a powerful stance on plastic pollution, with a new circular economy action plan seeking to curb Europe’s production of plastic waste and promote the use of sustainable alternatives. Here as well, however, collective European action will need to address the widely divergent performances of different EU countries when it comes to managing their plastic footprints. Whereas less than 0.1% of plastic packaging in Germany ends up in landfills, 38.2% of plastic in Spain ultimately finds itself there.
As part of its overall strategy, the EC is in the process of rolling out a Single Use Plastics Directive which targets ten types of single-use plastic packaging. While the directive is in principle a step in the right direction, it takes what critics hold to be an exceedingly broad view of what constitutes a plastic product, including by lumping in single-use paper products containing even one layer of polymer.
Could paper be part of the solution?
That component of the directive could be ripe for a rethink, according to the findings of a new life cycle assessment by Danish consultancy Ramboll.
The new study from Ramboll, which analyses whether single-use paper or reusable tableware is a more climate-friendly option for the quick service restaurant sector, subverts the widely accepted belief that washable bowls, cups, plates, and cutlery are really the way forward. Instead, it finds reusable tableware would be responsible for 177% more CO2 emissions as opposed to a “paper-based single-use system,” in addition to consuming 267% more freshwater and producing 132% more fine particulate matter. Perhaps most strikingly for the European energy agenda, Ramboll’s results indicate the “multiple-use” alternative would result in a 238% increase in fossil fuel consumption as opposed to single-use paper.
That the EC’s insistence of transitioning to reusable products could actually produce significantly higher levels of CO2 emissions speaks to a broader failure to fully analyse the ramifications of the bloc’s policies on the circular economy, even as the urgency of the climate crisis fuels calls for urgent action. Nor is the vilification of paper the only aspect of the Commission’s stance on single-use products that could turn out to do as much harm as good.
Addressing PM2.5 alongside CO2
Environmental campaigners, for example, have responded to new EU rules barring the shipment of unsorted plastic waste outside of Europe, which came into force on January 1st, with mixed feelings. Even though European recyclers claim the decision will produce new “opportunities” to expand the recycling sector, activists point out the EU does not have the capacity to process the plastic it will no longer send abroad. As a result, much of the waste will likely be either incinerated or dumped in landfills, with Zero Waste Europe’s Janek Vähk telling EURACTIV that the latter would at least “store fossil carbon… in line with the EU agenda of decarbonisation.”
As both the Ramboll life cycle assessment and the prospect of having to burn plastic waste highlight, Europe’s emissions issues are not limited to CO2. Air pollution across much of Europe is dangerously high as a result of fine particulate matter (such as PM 2.5) generated by the use of fossil fuels by home heating systems and motor vehicles, as well as by the burning of agricultural waste and industrial activities.
A recent assessment by the European Environment Agency (EEA) argues as many as 379,000 deaths in the EU in 2018 can be attributed to poor air quality. While the World Health Organisation has strict guidelines for particulate matter levels, only four EU countries – Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Ireland – manage to meet them. Meanwhile, levels in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, and Romania all exceed even the EU’s laxer limits.
These differences between EU member states, on issues ranging from renewable energy uptake to plastic waste management and particulate emissions, all point to deeper inequalities that will have to be addressed as part of an inclusive, broad-based shift to new modes of consumption and economic activity. Environmental targets, be they for CO2 or waste generation, are too often perceived as abstract numbers whose impact is limited to the Brussels bubble, while in reality their salutary impact can make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of EU citizens.