Mitigating climate change

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Article Published 30 Jun 2015 Last modified 11 May 2021
7 min read
Photo: © Miroslav Milev, Environment & Me/EEA
2014 was the hottest year on record. It was also one more year in series of increasingly warm decades. To limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels and minimise the impacts of climate change, greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere need to be reduced substantially. Governments can set targets, but it is ultimately up to industry, businesses, local authorities, and households to take action. This action must aim to ensure that emissions are reduced, atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations stabilised, temperature rises halted, and climate change limited.

In 2014, global temperatures were 0.69°C above the 20th century global averageScientists agree that the warming is due to atmospheric greenhouse gases emitted mainly as a result of anthropogenic combustion of fossil fuels. This warming in turn causes climate change. Since the industrial revolution, the amount of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere has steadily been increasing.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane are released both naturally and as a result of human activity. Combustion of fossil fuels adds to naturally occurring CO2 in the atmosphere. Worldwide deforestation amplifies this phenomenon by reducing trees, which remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, agriculture and poorly managed landfill play a large role in the release of methane. Furthermore, combustion of fossil fuels also leads to the release to the atmosphere of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, and particulate matter. Some of these pollutants can also play a role in warming (or, in the case of aerosols, cooling) our climate.

Due to their persistence in the atmosphere and the non-localised effect of concentrations, the impacts these gases have on the earth’s climate are global issues. This means that a global deal to mitigate emissions is paramount in preventing the continued acceleration of climate change.

A global deal on climate change

This year, the Conference of Parties (COP) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Paris to coordinate the latest step in the international political response to climate change. Building on two decades of negotiations, COP21 aims to achieve an ambitious, legally binding and global agreement on climate change that will set targets on greenhouse-gas emissions to which all countries should adhere. The agreement is also expected to include objectives and actions on climate change adaptation, focusing on vulnerable developing countries in particular.

The European Union’s efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are working. In fact, the EU is expected to meet its unilateral 20% reduction target (compared to 1990) ahead of the agreed 2020 deadline. Moreover, the EU intends to reduce domestic emissions by at least 40% by 2030 and further decarbonise its economy by 2050. But despite the EU’s decreasing emissions and its shrinking share of worldwide emissions, global emissions continue to rise. 

Government policies and target setting

At COP15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, an aspirational goal of limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels was agreed. COP21 intends to adopt a ‘new instrument’ that translates this limit into actions to be implemented from 2020. Alongside adaptation to existing climate change, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the transition towards resilient, low-carbon societies and economies should play a major role in this international agreement.

Prior to COP21, national governments are invited to publicly declare the actions they intend to commit to under the new global agreement  - their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)The European Union and its Member States have already submitted their INDCs, committing to reducing domestic greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 compared to 1990. This binding target will be achieved by the EU as a whole. This target is also in line with the EU objective to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990. The UNFCCC intends to publish a synthesis report of these pledges before COP21.

To fulfil these commitments, governments will need to develop and implement effective policies. For example, the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)is central to its mitigation efforts. It limits emissions from some 12 000 power stations and industrial plants across 31 countries by setting a cap on the total amount of greenhouse gases they can emit, and this cap is reduced over time. The European Commission proposes that in 2030 ETS emissions will be 43% lower than they were in 2005. Companies buy and sell emissions allowances, and after a year they must give back enough allowances to the authorities to cover all their emissions or else be subject to heavy fines. The scheme puts a monetary value on carbon, benefitting those that reduce their emissions. It also seeks to encourage investment in clean, low-carbon technologies.

The signals conveyed by governments to polluters are clear: reducing emissions doesn’t just demonstrate environmental good will, it also makes good business sense.

Energy and materials use

The environmental impact of industrial activity comes mainly from energy consumption, chemical production processes, and the use of resources in industrial production. Until recently, it was assumed that greater economic prosperity and growth were intrinsically linked with greater negative environmental impacts. However, in the last two decades, some developed countries have started breaking this link between economic growth and the use of energy and materials. These countries have been using less material and energy to produce the same value of output, while also reducing the amount of carbon released per unit of energy. These phenomena of dematerialisation and decarbonisation have led to reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. The technological and behavioural drivers behind this decoupling can help developing countries to mitigate their emissions as their economies grow.

The energy supply industry traditionally relied on the combustion of high-carbon fossil fuels to generate electricity. However, the ongoing switch in the short term to more efficient natural gas burning technology, combined with the growth of renewable energy sources, points to a future where this sector’s emissions continue to decline beyond current targets.

In the manufacturing sector, lessons may be learnt from nature. Industrial ecology is a field of study that considers the parallels between industrial and natural systems, and suggests features that industry could adopt. For example, in nature no material is wasted. Anything not needed in a certain process is recycled and transformed for use elsewhere. Waste products resulting from one process become the building blocks of a new one, and the whole system runs on energy from the sun.  

Lifecycle assessment (LCA) is increasingly used to understand how such reuse and recycling of energy and materials can contribute to emission reductions. LCA considers total energy use and emissions to air, water, and land as indicators of potential environmental harm. Incorporating LCA into decision-making can bring about environmental benefits and cost savings, while encouraging more economic, and less-polluting alternatives.

Other sectors must also play a role in future emissions reductions. The European Council has agreed to further reduce emissions from sectors not covered by the ETS by 30% compared to 2005. The EU’s Effort Sharing Decision (ESD) establishes binding annual targets for individual Member States until 2020 for all the emissions of these sectors, such as transport, buildings, agriculture and waste. Transport is the main source of emissions that is not covered by the EU-ETS. Emission reductions in the transport sector remain limited, while projected emissions reductions under current policies in the agricultural sector are also limited.

Cities and households must also play their part

Climate-change mitigation is not just about industry meeting or going beyond targets. At national, local, and individual levels we all have a role to play. Cities and households in particular need to act to reduce emissions.

Cities are on the frontline of the fight against climate change. In March 2015, leaders of 30 European cities agreed to use their EUR 10 billion per year collective purchasing power to buy eco-friendly goods and services in emissions-heavy sectors such as transport, domestic heating, and energy supply. This initiative complements the Covenant of Mayors, a European movement within which local and regional authorities voluntarily commit to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy resources on their territories. Currently numbering 6 279 signatories, its aim is to meet and exceed the EU’s 20% emissions reduction objective by 2020.

Households are also vital. Consumption patterns can affect emissions both directly and indirectly. Between 2000 and 2007, households increasingly purchased goods and services with reduced environmental pressures per Euro spent

In particular, more environmentally-friendly housing, water, transport, food, non-alcoholic beverages, electricity, and other fuels were purchased in this period. However, the increase in total expenditure in many of these consumption categories may have offset the gains.

Such changes in consumption, along with improvements in production processes and services, have resulted in reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions across all consumption categories measured. However, further efficiency gains and a shift towards less environmentally-intensive consumption are needed if global consumption overall continues to increase. Moreover, the impact of European consumption of goods manufactured outside the EU cannot be underestimated. 

From global targets to action on the ground

Overall, the message is clear. A climate deal at COP21 is essential. It will go a long way to set targets for emissions reductions and to give clear indications about what needs to be done on both climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Agreeing on emission-reduction targets alone cannot halt climate change. To achieve such targets, well-designed, ambitious, and binding policies leading to emissions reductions are necessary. These policies should provide the catalyst for industry and households to reduce emissions throughout the production and consumption process.

It is clear that emissions from economic activities are closely linked to our consumption patterns. Local authorities, households, and individuals can all exert pressure on existing production systems. Reducing our consumption, and consuming products and services that have less severe impacts on the environment will cause a shift in the way these products and services are produced and sold. Ultimately, climate action starts at home.

The European Union's effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are working. In fact, the EU is expected to meet its unilateral 20 % reduction target (compared to 1990) ahead of the agreed 2020 deadline. Moreover, the EU intends to reduce domestic emissions by at least 40 % by 2030 and further decarbonise its economy by 2050. The EU currently emits around 10 % of global greenhouse-gas emissions.


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