The real story behind the latest EEA emissions figures (part 1)

A closer look at Europe's latest annual emissions figures reveals some reasons for concern.  In the first of a two-part blog, T&E's Director Jos Dings explains the reality behind the EEA's numbers.

Last month the European Environment Agency published its annual statistics of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.

As ever, the really interesting developments are buried under a mountain of data, facts and figures.  So let me try and tease out what the figures really mean for transport.  In this blog, I'll look at the overall trends, in a few days I'll be back with a look at national trends, and what they mean.

Let’s start with the EEA's headline finding that transport emissions dropped in 2010. On first inspection, that sounds nice.  But hold on just a second.  The drop is 1%, whereas 3% per year is needed in order to hit the EU's 2050 target for transport emissions as set out in the transport white paper.  Second, it is no secret that the drop is at least partly ‘thanks’ to the EU’s economic troubles, hardly the most desirable way to reduce emissions.

All in all, the 2010 figures mean that transport emissions are up by 27% from their 1990 levels. On a more positive note, they are down by almost 7% from their 2007 peak and are now back at 2003 levels. I have some hope that 2007 will prove to be the all-time-high. The share of transport – including aviation and shipping – in EU CO2 emissions now stands at 29%.  That figure is considerably higher than the oft-quoted official figures that leave aviation and shipping out. In 1990 the share was 21%, so transport is now a bigger piece of the pie.

Sub-prime biofuels accounting

Look deeper and the situation is even worse.  The 4% of transport energy delivered by biofuels count on paper as zero emissions, thanks to flawed greenhouse gas accounting conventions.  In reality, EU biofuel emissions are quite close to those of fossil fuels, as an IEEP study for T&E has shown.  If we assume that the EU’s biofuels emit the same as fossil fuels, the rise of transport emissions since 1990 would be 32%, not 27%, and the share of transport CO2 emissions would stand at 30%, not 29%.

This may seem like nit-picking, but it isn't.  It matters a great deal. If your ambition is to reduce transport emissions by 70%, and if you accept the current accounting rules, it means all you have to do is blend in 70% biofuels in all transport modes and voila – there’s your reduction. Job done.  And sadly, on-paper reductions are what many environment ministries seem to care about; they have to hit their Kyoto and EU ‘20-20-20’ EU climate package targets. That this means razing what remains of Malaysia’s rainforests to make the palm oil for our trucks and aircraft – well that’s Malaysia’s problem isn’t it ?  Well, no it isn't. It’s our problem. Our bioenergy accounting rules need to change, and fast, otherwise all these climate targets don’t mean a thing.

A shipping miracle?

Look more closely at shipping emissions, and you're in for a surprise.  Shipping emissions are 15% below their 2007 peak, despite EU sea freight being back at pre-crisis levels.

So energy efficiency of ships has drastically improved somehow. Is it better technology ? Very unlikely: new ships are not much better than old ones. What’s more, fleet renewal in shipping is very slow so even if new ships were a lot better, this would take decades to show in the overall fleet figures.

The only realistic explanation is ‘slow steaming’ i.e. going much slower with the same ships.  A large amount of new freight capacity has entered the market in the past 5 years (an overhang from pre-crisis orders) so the world fleet can go much slower and still bring all the goods to their destination. High fuel prices have surely made the economics of slow steaming much more attractive too. All this is instructive for climate policy: ensuring that ship speeds go down and stay down would clearly help reach climate targets, and in a future of high oil prices such a policy becomes a win-win.  We think slow steaming is the future, and should be regulated to ensure it continues. 

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