Statistical fog in battle against CO2

The EU’s plan to reduce CO2 emissions is lauded for being the most ambitious scheme of its kind. But unclear criteria and wayward accounting put into doubt the success of steps taken so far.

Published on 20 April 2012 at 10:07

The EU has earned a lot of credit on the international climate scene. It has pushed through a roadmap to a second Kyoto deal at the Durban climate change summit, and stood firm on tugging global airlines into a carbon-pricing scheme.

More than anything it has demonstrated its good faith with a pioneering set of decarbonisation targets at home: the "20-20-20" goals. By 2020, the EU has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of their 1990 level, and to increase the share of renewables to 20% of the energy mix. It also has a voluntary target to increase energy efficiency by 20% on 2005 levels, and an obligation to source 10% of its transport fuels from renewable energy sources by the same year.

"We're not waiting for talks to end in binding targets," the climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said in Brussels, shortly before the Durban summit. "We're trying to move forward with our low-carbon roadmap, energy efficiency, discussing how we can increase efforts back home."

She had reason to sound confident. The EU's climate and environment directorates are staffed with some of the most talented and dedicated friends of the earth that you could find. But what if a culture of creative accounting, for reasons of political expediency, was robbing the targets they were working for of any credibility?

• Half of the EU's accounted increase in renewable energy uptake is expected to come from biomass, much of which some scientists fear may not reduce real emissions at all, even if Brussels counts it as doing so. Biomass can – and in the majority of cases may – come from unsustainable forest use in Europe and abroad, thereby increasing rather than reducing emissions. On current trends, the EU could run out of harvestable wood before 2020 and is said to be counting on energy savings to reduce Europe's overall power-consumption levels.

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