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How not to reduce carbon dioxide emissions


It would be reasonable to expect that those countries which have invested heavily in renewable energy technologies of various descriptions would by now have lower per capita carbon dioxide emissions than countries with a more conservative approach to energy policy. But reasonable expectations are not always fulfilled, and such is the case with the energy use of EU Member States.

I am indebted to the admirable Supporters of Nuclear Energy ( for pointing out the goldmine of data provided by the World Bank. Digging among the data, we find, for example, that the simplest measure of the comparable ‘carbon footprints’ of different populations, CO2 emissions in tonnes per capita, shows the following surprising order (2009 figures): Norway (10.6), Ireland (9.8), Germany (9.0), UK (8.5), Denmark (8.3), France (5.9) and Sweden (5.3).

Norway – a country blessed with a large percentage of hydropower – has almost double the per capita emissions of Sweden. Ireland, Germany and Denmark (all with large amounts of wind capacity, plus plenty of solar in Germany) are pretty much on a par with the UK, seemingly always lagging in the renewable stakes. Meanwhile France is among the less carbon intensive countries, along with Sweden.

Compare this with the percentage of fossil fuel energy in the mix for the same countries, again for 2009: Ireland (88.6%), UK (87.3%), Denmark (79.7%), Germany (79.4%), Norway (59.0%), France (50.8%) and Sweden (32.0%). Interestingly, only France and Sweden have both low per capita emissions and relatively low percentages of coal, oil and gas in their overall mix, which is at least partly attributable to their extensive use of nuclear power for their electricity grids.

These figures nicely illustrate a number of important points about energy use. First, and perhaps most importantly, although stories often focus on electricity generation, this is not the major component of a country’s overall energy use. Heating and transport are also big energy users. This is why Norway is in many respects an outlier in Europe. Although it has large amounts of hydroelectricity, it is also cold and has unique transport problems because of its geography. Large amounts of oil are used for both heating and train, road and sea transport.

Second, not all fossil fuels are equal as far as emissions are concerned. The higher the carbon content, the greater the amount of carbon dioxide produced when it is burned. Coal is largely carbon and therefore has the highest emissions, while natural gas (methane, CH4) produces two molecules of water for each one of carbon dioxide. Oil, in its various guises, sits somewhere between the two. So, the UK, with its large use of gas for both electricity generation and heating, has similar emissions per capita to Germany and Denmark, countries which have a much higher use of renewables but also a higher proportion of coal in their fossil fuel mix.

Third, the industrial base also makes a significant difference. Germany has a thriving manufacturing economy and a relatively high total energy use (3,872 kg oil equivalent per capita in 2009); the UK, at 3,188 kg oe is significantly lower (as is Denmark, with a figure of 3,323). These and other factors make the picture of overall energy consumption rather complex. Clean, green Norwegians each use about 6,000 kg oil equivalent, simply because of their country’s geography.

By way of comparison, the per capita energy consumption in China in 2009 was 1,689 kg oe, increasing to 1,807 the following year and likely to stay on a rising trend for many years to come. Over 87% of this came from fossil fuels, mainly coal, and the CO2 emissions per capita stood at 5.8 tonnes, about the same as France but for a much lower energy use per head. Given China’s huge population and rapid growth, its contribution to carbon dioxide emissions will become ever more dominant in years to come. On the other hand, if its energy profile were at some stage to be the same as that of France is now, current emissions levels could represent an achievable norm in the long run.

To return to Europe, it is interesting to consider what might be achieved by current renewable energy policy. Present biofuels policy is both misguided and a failure. The EU, after a period of enthusiasm, has come to realise that first generation fuels have little potential for reducing CO2 emissions, but have a distorting effect on agricultural markets and put upward pressure on food commodity prices. Processing of crop wastes (second generation biofuels), although attractive in principle, is still nowhere near economic. Even if the economics was right and other problems solved, there is simply not enough biomass to fuel more than a fraction of the cars on the road today. Perhaps one day algae might provide the answer, but certainly not for some time to come.

As for burning wood or other biomass for its energy value, this may make sense on a local scale, but co-firing full-scale coal power stations with wood chips from America surely stretches the definition of environmentally friendly a little too far. Carbon dioxide produced on burning will be recaptured by new trees, but only after a considerable lag.

Which is why governments are putting their energies (and our money) into decarbonising grid electricity; it is the one area where they believe they can make real progress. But the World Bank figures show the progress here to have been largely illusory; even countries as enthusiastic about renewables as Denmark and Germany are simply scratching the surface of their overall energy use. And, by exporting manufacturing and increasing imports, the overall carbon intensity of their economies has probably barely shifted.

In the meantime, the UK and other EU Member States continue to reduce their competitiveness and push more of their citizens into fuel poverty, with little prospect of the radical decarbonisation agenda being fulfilled. Now must be the time for politicians to encourage R&D on new energy and transport options, but stop the current practice of using taxpayers’ money to subsidise their use before they are economic to deploy.

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