EU sees renewables overtake fossil fuels for first time

The EU is doing its bit to avert climate change, especially as it has seen renewable sources of power become increasingly dominant in 2020.

Home to over 446 million people, member states of the EU are some of the key signatories of the Paris Agreement. Despite a year of turbulence and uncertainty, one thing was for sure in 2020 – the EU managed to pass the milestone of seeing more power generated through renewable sources, while fossil fuel power generation lost the top spot.

Carbon emissions in the EU are still too high for us to consider the battle completely won, but 2020 was a decidedly pivotal year for the bloc, in which it undoubtedly moved in the right direction.

Emissions expected to have fallen

As is often the case during recession years, EU carbon emissions are expected to have dropped sharply in 2020, but that masks what’s going on behind the scenes. In 2020, the EU is estimated to have emitted between 3,682 to 3,743 metric tonnes equivalent of CO2, down from 5,652 metric tonnes equivalent in 1990. Keep an eye on the EU’s progress, by monitoring the latest data published by Climate Action Tracker.

It is significant that Europe has reached this landmark moment at the start of a decade of global climate action. Rapid growth in wind and solar has forced coal into decline but this is just the beginning. Europe is relying on wind and solar to ensure not only coal is phased out by 2030, but also to phase out gas generation, replace closing nuclear power plants, and to meet rising electricity demand from electric cars, heat pumps and electrolysers.

– Dave Jones, Senior electricity analyst – Ember

Pre-COVID-19, the EU’s carbon emissions were staying well below its original Kyoto emissions allowances, suggesting it was making good progress in decarbonising. The composition of the EU’s energy mix has been changing for a number of years, and events in 2020 simply brought them to a head sooner.

According to a report published in a collaboration between think tanks Ember and Agora Energiewende, the EU’s 27 member states saw 38.2 per cent of its cumulative power supplies generated by renewables alone, making them overtake fossil fuels, which saw their share drop to 37 per cent. As recently as 2010, fossil fuels enjoyed a share of 48.9 per cent, contrasted with renewables which were making up just 22 per cent of the power back then.

Such a shift was attributed to 9 per cent growth in wind power generation, plus a 15 per cent boom in solar power.

No room for backsliding

While the report’s findings suggest green shoots for EU renewable energy production, there were weak spots. Hydroelectric power remained at the same levels in 2020, while bioenergy production stalled suddenly. The EU has the ambition of generating an extra 100TWh of energy from renewables per year by 2030, but existing data suggests wind and solar power generation must triple to meet these 2030 targets.

The EU unveiled a European Green Deal in 2020, announcing its intention to become the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Its targets for the next decade include a plan to ensure emissions drop by at least 55 per cent by 2030, before hitting net zero by 2050.

However, the EU can only do so much to prevent global temperatures rising too rapidly in the coming century. The US opting to re-join the Paris Agreement could be just the impetus to encourage other nations across the globe to step up their investment in renewable energy sources.

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