Defying Expectations, EU Carbon Emissions Drop To 30-Year Lows

It was supposed to be a dirty autumn and winter, with European nations scrambling to replace Russian gas with high-polluting coal. But according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, the cold seasons so far have been the cleanest in more than 30 years.

“There were widespread expectations that the fossil fuel crisis would lead to an increase in the EU’s emissions,” writes Lauri Myllyvirta, CREA’s lead analyst, in a new report. “This was based on a misunderstanding.”

Throughout the year, the EU increased fossil-fuel imports from sources throughout the world. European utilities were scrambling to replace diminished supplies from Russia, which cut off gas exports and saw its coal exports banned. Meanwhile, drought depleted hydropower and nuclear was little help. While Germany chose to do without nuclear power, France had an extraordinary number of plants idle for repairs and refueling. All of these factors prompted Europe to import fossil fuels, and many analysts expected emissions to rise as those imports were burned.

But by late autumn, high gas prices had pushed down demand for fossil fuels, while wind and solar energy set production records (for winter) to make up the difference, Myllyvirta says. European hydropower also recovered from a dry summer.

Emissions fell in the power sector and across the economy: “Total CO2 emissions have been falling since July, pulled by dramatic reductions in fossil gas use in industry and buildings.”

European emissions fell to less than 8 metric tons per day, compared to more than 10 Mt/day in 1990. The drop in emissions might have been more pronounced had France been able to restart more idle nuclear plants.

“The French nuclear power operator EDF has not been able to meet its targets for reactor restarts, resulting in record-low nuclear output, again, in November,” Myllyvirta writes. Emissions fell anyway.

Mild weather can explain a portion of November’s decline in emissions, but not December’s:

“The first half of December had colder weather than the year before. Yet, total emissions remained well below 2021 level, showing that the reduction in gas and electricity use wasn’t mainly due to weather. Power sector emissions started increasing again in December, as the sector continues to be plagued by the poor performance of nuclear, and wind conditions were also very unfavorable, but reduced gas use outside the power sector has kept emissions falling overall.”

Wind production jumped in Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and especially Germany, while solar production increased in nine countries, led by Poland. The production increases are dwarfed, however, by a dramatic drop in overall power generation, led by a drop in fossil gas.

CREA’s observations accord with trends reported in October by the International Energy Agency. The carbon intensity of the world’s energy supply is declining thanks to renewables, the IEA reported, adding that renewables were offsetting coal use that was expected to rise because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting decline in Russian gas exports.

“Even though the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has propped up global coal demand in 2022 by making natural gas far more expensive,” IEA said, “the relatively small increase in coal emissions has been considerably outweighed by the expansion of renewables.”

CREA’s findings are based on its near-real-time tracking of EU CO2 emissions.

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