Pathways to a Low-Carbon Europe

Analysis shows that it would be technically feasible to reduce Europe’s emissions by 80 percent of their 1990 level by 2050

Challenge

In July 2009, the European Union and G8 announced an objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least eighty percent from the 1990 level by 2050 to combat climate change. What kind of transformation would this involve? How could the EU reconcile its environmental commitments with its aspirations for economic development and energy security?

Discovery

We modeled several potential pathways for achieving the eighty percent reduction target, and analyzed their technical feasibility and financial requirements. Each pathway had a different share of renewable power: forty percent, sixty percent, or eighty percent. The pathways did not rely on imported electricity and were based on technologies that already exist or are at an advanced stage of development, including renewables such as solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal and low-carbon non-renewables such as nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

By modeling multiple scenarios in detail we found it would be technically feasible, but challenging, for Europe to achieve its eighty percent reduction target. Emissions from the power, buildings, and road transport sectors would have to be cut by ninety-five percent. Extensive energy efficiency measures would have to be put in place to reduce demand. Investments would have to be made in regional electricity networks and local smart grids. Power markets would have to be coordinated across member states to maximize the value of low-carbon investments and minimize the need for back-up supply and load balancing.

Although building the new power generation capacity required in 2050 would pose a considerable challenge over the next forty years, in the long term it would cost consumers and the European economy about the same as continuing on a high-carbon energy pathway. Capital expenditure would need to double in the short term, but the economy’s overall energy bill would start to fall in the medium term.

Impact

A report analyzing these findings was launched in June 2010. It helped inform the European Commission’s March 2011 report a roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050, which sets out a plan for meeting Europe’s emission reduction target by the middle of the century. The analysis, which recently entered its second phase, continues to inform the work of the EC as it looks more closely at the period 2020 to 2030, and has also sparked discussions in member states and the power industry on how to start low-carbon transformations.