Building a Low Carbon Economy – an International Perspective

Speech Published 25 Feb 2009 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director, European Environment Agency, at the British Council and FoE Scotland anniversary lecture, University of Edinburgh, 9th February 2009.

Carbon lies at the heart of the problem and our economies; its increase in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide is the primary cause of changes in the global climate.

Prof. Jacqueline McGlade

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2O years ago, when the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change was first set up, climate change was the realm of scientists and statisticians, and still at the periphery of the public consciousness.

Today, it is recognised as the most pressing environmental question the world has so far faced; and we are only now beginning to appreciate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Carbon lies at the heart of the problem and our economies; its increase in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide is the primary cause of changes in the global climate.

The source of much of this excess in carbon emissions comes from energy consumption and production and transport.

Whilst these have been the motors of material wealth in Europe, they have also been disproportionately responsible for many negative impacts on our environment and driven many countries into an unhealthy dependency on distant energy sources.

Our dependence on non-renewable fuel resources, and an ageing infrastructure, mean that fundamental reforms to build a low carbon economy are needed.

But if we are to secure a sustainable, stable future for the economy and society we need to move more quickly, whilst at the same time being careful to avoid making mistakes that could undermine the very progress we wish to see.

The financial crisis has shown the fragility of a system built on a lack of transparency and public involvement. To ensure that we can achieve the targets set, reign in the effects of climate change and build a low carbon economy this needs to change.

The first step is to make accounting for our natural assets the basis for our future low carbon policy. It is critical to recognise that policies need to be driven by the real availability of natural resources provided by the planet.

In order to bring about these changes, the public needs to be properly informed and empowered to participate be involved in developing a low carbon economy at all levels, as well being empowered to change their own way of living.

The European Environment Agency - has a key role in ensuring the EU and its citizens can make the changes our environment needs.

We are required to support sustainable development and help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment, through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Key climate change trends

Last Autumn, we released two reports on climate change in Europe; an indicator report on climate change impacts and a report on Kyoto emission projections.

Indicator report

The first report, based on 40 indicators and produced in conjunction with the Commission’s Joint Research Centre and the World Health Organisation Europe, gives us further evidence on climate change trends in Europe. The trends, which complement those of the IPCC in 2007, are unequivocal; climate change is a reality which we need to address urgently:

  • We have observed increases in the number of hot and cold extremes, and the intensity and variability of precipitation extremes.
  • We have rapid melting of European glaciers and sea ice.
  • A significant change in the fluvial system and distribution across North and South Europe. But flooding and drought will both increase! And,
  • Sea level rise.

EEA country report – in line for Kyoto, but only just!

The report, "Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2008" evaluates historic emissions from 1990–2006.

It also looks at projections of future emissions during the Kyoto Protocol commitment period, compared to the joint commitment by the 15 old EU member states to a reduction of 8% by 2008-2012 from 1990 levels.

The EU-15 as a whole should meet its joint Kyoto commitment, and the newer EU member states should meet their individual commitments.

Overall emissions are projected to continue decreasing. The 20 % reduction target for 2020, endorsed by European leaders in 2008, is realistic, but we don’t have time to waste!

Energy and Environment – EEA report

The analysis from our energy and environment report – also released late last year - illustrates that Europe is leading the world in terms of decoupling our Gross Domestic Product from energy intensity and emissions, moving away from carbon as the sole driver of economic growth.

We also see that renewable energy has the highest annual growth rate in total primary energy consumption across the EU.

It is clear therefore that certain trends in greenhouse gases and stimulating the renewables sector are on the right course. But it isn’t all good news!

80% of EU greenhouse gas emissions still come from energy consumption and nearly all of the EU energy system depends on fossil fuels. Half of this fossil fuel comes from outside the EU.

Electricity consumption in the household sector continues to increase.

Energy policy and a low carbon society

Last November in its World Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency said “Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically and socially – they can and must be altered”.

Our energy and environment report presents some existing scenarios to give a future perspective. We see that energy consumption will be up to 25% higher by 2030 and fossil fuels will still continue to be the major part of this production.

If we take climate change and ecological resilience seriously, the conclusion is clear - business as usual, with a reliance on fossil fuels, cannot be an option for our economies.

Precisely this ‘non business as usual’ scenario is also illustrated in our report. Essentially with more stringent energy and climate change policies, with greater improvements in energy efficiency and a higher penetration rates for renewable energy we can make a shift to a low carbon economy.

Here two elements are fundamental, and both relate to our energy dependency; a life cycle assessment and decentralisation.

Life cycle assessment and energy

The true costs and benefits of utilising each energy source must be properly understood, so that in the end we do not end up disadvantaging the good for the sake of a lower unit price in the short term.

There is a need for clearly understood advantages and disadvantages of each energy option: limited natural capital as input to energy production; scarcity may lead to increased used of environmentally challenging options (tar sands, oil shale, coal, etc), renewable technologies dispose of a limited no. of suitable sites (wind, hydropower, ocean, solar) which may or may not be socially acceptable.

An illustration is the impact of biofuels for cars, which was initially widely supported across the EU as a form of CO2 reduction. What we now know is that the response to this policy decision potentially placed significant pressure on the environment and food production at a global level.   

In addition the EEA showed that the most cost-effective and sustainable use of European biomass was not as a fuel for the transport sector, but instead for electricity and heat production.


If we conclude that a greater share of energy needs to be produced from sustainable renewable sources, the existing grid will have to be radically altered and upgraded so as to make use of a decentralised energy supply.

Ever since the first national grid was constructed in Europe in the 1930s, most governments have sought to maximise centralisation: it has always been seen as easier to build a few large power plants than rely on a large number of smaller ones.

But to really benefit from sustainable renewable energy the electricity grid at a national and EU level needs a complete overhaul.

The Super grid initiative, supported by President Sarkozy during the French Presidency last year, intends to better link the available resources around Europe and Africa - e.g. by using solar power derived from north Africa to power mainland Europe.

It’s aim through a revamped grid network is to deliver a better use of the renewable resources around Europe and importantly it allows distribution access for all energy suppliers, from the household to the multinational.

Renewable energy comes in small packages and is distributed for free: the diffuse nature of the energy from the sun, winds, waves and tides means that it is far better suited to a decentralised generating system.

Decentralised energy is more efficient, as it suffers fewer distribution losses, is cheaper as the International Agency for Energy has pointed out, and paradoxically, more secure.

The Three Crises

As citizens of the EU we have all signed up to the target of limiting a global temperature increase to 2°C and the 20/20/20 package agreed by EU heads of state last December.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year the over-arching theme was "shaping the post-crisis world".

This in many respects has provided the perfect opportunity to stimulate the economy during the current financial crisis.

Sir Nicolas Stern, has added that ‘clean energy is proving to be a convenient policy tool, as it address four major issues; energy security, the economy, unemployment and climate change’

What is missing – and which has been brought into sharp focus by both the financial and climate change crises – is the pressure we continue to place on our natural world; an ecosystem crisis, which we must address.

Biofuels is just one illustration of how our policies needed to be considered on a broader scale. Likewise I would question many countries stimulus packages which include road building and car replacement schemes.

We know the world is facing a financial and climate crisis – but we are also creating an ecosystem crisis which needs consideration in our reponse. Indeed there are common features of these 3 crises:

1.  natural capital is being destroyed and the debts created – both financial and Natural – is passed on to others through an over consumption encouraged by false market prices;

As an illustration let me highlight a few examples how consumption and production puts high pressures on the environment in Europe and the rest of the world:

  • In the EU-25 as much as 7 billion tonnes of materials - fossil fuels, minerals and biomass – extracted within Europe and outside Europe – are used each year. This amount is expected to grow by around one quarter by the year 2020.
  • From 2005 to 2020, the amount of municipal waste in the EU is also expected to grow by a quarter.

Europe relies not only on its own resources, but to a large extent on the resources from other parts of the world. And our emissions – for example of greenhouse gases and persistent chemicals – affect not only Europe’s environment but the global environment.

The widely cited indicator of the ecological footprint shows in an easily understandable way that the footprint of the EU is larger than our bio-capacity.

2.  We are not accounting for what matters - GDP, needs to better address our natural world.

Europe can use the concepts of sustainable consumption and production and a low-carbon economy to help meet the needs of Europe’s citizens without destroying the environment.

To underpin this process we also need smarter GDP - going beyond today’s measure to one in which the good things count positively and the bad things count negatively. This is not a new concept, as highlighted by Robert F Kennedy in 1968;

"Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile."

3.  Early warnings have been often ignored.

Both the financial and the climate change crises happened even though significant attempts were made to warn the global community. We should head this lesson in relation to our natural assets.

The International Global Carbon Observing Programme have produced evidence that current global atmospheric carbon levels now exceed those of the most pessimistic projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nature, which has long often buffered man’s excess , is also suffering - the capacity of the world’s ecosystems to absorb carbon has decreased by 5% over the past 40 years, and for the oceans alone the decline is nearer to 16%.

Clearly, the resilience of our ecosystems is under pressure.

A post Crises low carbon economy

Fundamentally we must consider as we develop strategies to alleviate the 3 crises whether they are inclusive i.e. good governance.

Recent attempts by many governments to stimulate the economy and tackle climate change have lacked the involvement of the citizens.

Gordon Brown said at Davos "We need business to formulate with us the economic and policy conditions that will incentivise their investment and that will bring the low carbon economy into being,"

Whilst we cannot dispute the need to work in a co-ordinated approach, governance systems also need to be adjusted to empower citizens to play and active role in the low carbon economy. Without their involvement, and in some cases, investment, how can we ask them to trust a system which has brought the financial and climate crises?

A Parallel can be drawn here in Scotland. Although there is a significant potential for renewable energy there remains a great deal of scepticism from those closest to it at the grass roots and community level.

Why is this?

Often this sceptisicm develops due to concerns for wildlife, noise or landscape and undoubtedly there is also an element of trust and how this will benefit the community.

However, where communities have played an active role and even own the renewable energies there is the opposite reaction.

A perfect example is the community approach in Thisted municipality in Denmark. Here the community has achieved over 100 per cent of its power consumption, and more than 80 per cent of its heat consumption, without the use of fossil fuels.

At the same time they have boosted local employment and will have access to place the unused energy into their national grid.

Concluding remarks

The Poznan conference on climate change last December continued a process towards a future global agreement on the climate change.

I’m sure we all hope this will be successfully completed in Copenhagen at the end of this year.

An agreement will not only bring governments closer together on what needs to be done in the future, but also create a clear link to actions that need to be taken by citizens around the world.

I believe that if we are to tackle climate change we need to move beyond conventional systems.

If we are to bring about real improvement and reverse the financial, climate change and natural assets trends, we need to keep informing and involving citizens and empower them in something that is critical to our shared future.

Our commitment to a low carbon economy, via a shift towards sustainable renewable energy is essential for energy security and tacking climate change. But we must also introduce our natural world into our policy and economic responses.

Nature underpins our economies and the price of losing it dwarfs the financial crisis. We must remember that there are no societies without environments, but there are environments without societies.

We know our environment is influenced by massive global and national factors, but it is also affected by the daily actions, no matter how small, of each and every European citizen.



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