Climate Change

• ‘Greenhouse’ gases emitted by human activities are warming the Earth and causing changes in the global climate. These
changes are having increasingly severe human, economic and environmental impacts and will continue to do so over the coming decades.

• The 1997 Kyoto Protocol is an important step towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but to stop global warming from
reaching dangerous levels Kyoto needs to be succeeded by a stronger United Nations framework involving climate action by all major economies. It has been agreed that such a framework will be adopted by 2015 and will take effect from 2020.

• Long in the vanguard of international efforts to combat climate change, the European Union has put in place ambitious
measures to cut its emissions by 20% by 2020 and is offering to scale up this reduction to 30% if other major economies agree to do their fair share of a global effort.

• For the long term, the EU has set itself the goal of reducing its emissions to 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050.
The European Commission has published a ‘roadmap’ setting out how this could be achieved most cost-effectively.

• In parallel with cutting emissions, Europe and the rest of the world need to adapt to the current and future changes in the
climate. Adaptation measures can increase society’s resilience to climate change and so reduce the associated impacts and costs.

Climate Action

Climate change is happening now …
There is unequivocal evidence that the Earth’s climate is warming. By 2005, the average global temperature was 0.76°C above the level in pre-industrial times, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together hundreds of the world’s leading climate experts. The average temperature is rising by almost 0.2°C every 10 years. The first 11 years of the 21st century all rank among the 13 warmest since reliable records began in 1880. The vast majority of the world’s leading climate experts attribute this warming mainly to a build-up of ‘greenhouse’ gases (GHGs) emitted by human activities, in particular the burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – and the destruction of forests. Greenhouse gases are so called because they trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere in the same way as the glass of a greenhouse. Today, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas, is at its highest level for 650 000 years, as shown by analyses of gases trapped in ice cores. This man-made warming is causing discernible climatic and environmental changes, such as more frequent or more severe extreme weather, rising sea levels, and the melting of glaciers and polar ice. In the longer term, these changes threaten to cause serious damage to our economies and the environment we depend on, putting the lives of millions of people in danger and causing the extinction of many animal and plant species.

The 27 EU Member States are responsible for around 11% of world GHG emissions. More than 80% of EU emissions come from the production and use of energy, including in transport.

… and will become dangerous without urgent action
Scientific evidence suggests that an average world temperature rise of more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level – equivalent to around 1.2°C above today’s temperature – will greatly increase the risk of large-scale, irreversible changes in the global environment. The EU has therefore long argued for limiting global warming to no more than 2°C. The need to do so is now recognised by the international community. Preventing global warming from exceeding this threshold is both technologically feasible and economically affordable if the world takes strong action in the near future. The cost is estimated at around 1% of global GDP. This is far less than letting climate change take its destructive course, which is expected to cost at least 5% of global GDP and could reach 20% or more in the long term. Moreover, building the low-carbon global economy that is needed to prevent dangerous climate change stimulates innovation in clean technologies such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. This creates new sources of economic growth and jobs, strengthens Europe’s energy security, and saves money by reducing our dependence on oil and gas imports and by cutting air pollution and its associated costs.

The Kyoto Protocol is a first step …
Two major international agreements have been adopted to address climate change: the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Both are based on the principle that industrialised countries should take the lead in combating climate change as they are responsible for the bulk of emissions since the Industrial Revolution and have greater financial resources. The UNFCCC, which has been ratified by 194 countries and the European Union, establishes a framework for international cooperation with the ultimate objective of preventing dangerous man-made interference with the global climate system. The Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005, is a first step towards reversing the global trend of rising emissions. The Protocol currently sets legally binding targets for 37 industrialised countries and the EU to reduce their emissions of six GHG by an average of 5% by 2012. Among these countries only the United States has not ratified the Protocol.

Sources of EU greenhouse gas emissions
Waste and other 3% Energy supply 31%                            

Agriculture 10%

Industry 20%

Households and commercial buildings 16%                                         

Transport 20%

Source: European Environment Agency Note: The category ‘households and commercial buildings’ shows emissions from fuel used directly but not from the use of electricity and heat produced by the power sector

Some current and future impacts of climate change
• The polar ice caps are melting, sea levels rising and glaciers retreating. Sea-level rise threatens the existence of lowlying island states and coastal communities. The melting of glaciers is putting millions of people at risk of floods and will eventually deprive them of fresh-water resources. Extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and heatwaves are becoming more frequent, more severe and more costly in some parts of the world. Their impacts include reduced water availability and crop yields, jeopardising food production. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable. Climate change will have direct impacts on human health. For instance, the summer 2003 heatwave in southern Europe contributed to the premature deaths of as many as 70 000 people. Global warming may encourage the spread of tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue. Climate change is exacerbating other human pressures on nature. Some 20 to 30% of plant and animal species may be at increased risk of extinction if the global average temperature increases by more than 1.5-2.5°C above 1980-1999 levels. Coral reefs, which are crucial nurseries for fish and other marine life, are already suffering extensive damage at current levels of warming. Through its impact on water resources and food production, climate change could threaten regional and international security by triggering or exacerbating conflicts, famines and refugee movements.

Under Kyoto, the 15 countries which were EU Member States when the Protocol was adopted (‘EU-15’) have taken on a commitment to cut their collective emissions to 8% below the level in their chosen base year (1990 in most cases) by 2012. Most of the 12 countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 also have national reduction targets of 6 or 8%. The EU-15 is on course to over achieve its target: in 2010, emissions were 11% below base-year levels, while combined emissions from all 27 Member States were 15.5% lower than in 1990. At the UN climate conference in December 2011, held in Durban, South Africa, international agreement was reached that Kyoto will run for a second period starting on 1 January 2013. The EU has committed to participate in this new period, but it remains to be seen how many other developed countries will do so. The length of the second period, as well as new emission-reduction targets and the key rules governing it, will be decided at the end of 2012. The EU proposes to take on a Kyoto reduction commitment which reflects the 20% cut by 2020 enshrined in its domestic legislation.

The EU therefore wants Kyoto to be succeeded by a truly global legal framework that requires action not only from all developed countries – which have a duty to continue leading – but also from the major emerging economies in the developing world.

… but now a much more ambitious global framework is needed
The Kyoto Protocol covers less than 30% of global emissions today and this share will fall further in future to no more than 15%. By 2020, it is projected that nearly two-thirds of global emissions will come from developing countries.
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This demand finally won approval at the 2011 Durban conference, where it was agreed to launch negotiations on a global legal framework applicable to all countries. The global framework is to be adopted by 2015 and implemented from 2020. The EU wants an ambitious, comprehensive and legally binding new protocol. Durban also recognised that current pledges to cut emissions by 2020 fall well short of what is needed to hold warming below 2°C, and launched a work plan to explore ways to close this gap. To keep the 2°C ceiling within reach, scientific studies show that global GHG emissions need to peak by 2020 at the latest, be at least halved from 1990 levels by 2050, and continue to decline therea er. In addition to the second Kyoto period, new rules, institutions and commitments resulting from the UN climate conferences held in Copenhagen (2009), Cancún (2010) and Durban have opened the way for concrete action to be taken on the ground in the near term. In particular, these decisions:

• Launch action to combat tropical deforestation and
forest degradation (estimated to account for some 15% of global emissions) and establish a framework for financing this;

• Promote greater international cooperation in the
development and transfer of innovative technologies;

• Increase the transparency of countries’ actions so that
overall progress towards reducing global emissions can be tracked effectively.

The European Union is leading the fight against climate change
Long in the forefront of international efforts to tackle climate change, the European Union is committed to becoming a highly energy-efficient, low-carbon economy. It has set itself some of the world’s most ambitious climate and energy targets for 2020 and is the first region to have passed binding legislation to ensure they are achieved. These measures will reduce GHG emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and also ensure that, by then, at least 20% of the EU’s energy comes from renewable sources like wind and solar. The Union also aims to improve its energy efficiency by 20% by the same deadline. These actions strengthen the EU’s energy security by reducing reliance on oil and gas imports. They are also spurring innovation in clean technologies, creating sustainable

• Confirm developed countries’ commitment to mobilise
nearly US$ 30 billion in climate financing for developing countries over 2010-2012, and to build this up to US$ 100 billion per year by 2020;

• Establish a Green Climate Fund through which much of
this finance will be channelled in the longer term;

• Provide support for developing countries’ efforts to adapt
to climate change and so strengthen their resilience to it;

Greenhouse gases
The Kyoto Protocol currently limits developed countries’ emissions of six GHGs released by human activities: • Carbon dioxide (CO2): The most important greenhouse gas released by human activities in terms of quantity, it is emitted by combustion – of fossil fuels, wood or anything else containing carbon – but is also absorbed by plants and trees. Methane (CH4): Releases come from a wide range of natural sources and human activities, including fossil fuel production, livestock husbandry, rice cultivation and waste management. Nitrous oxide (N2O): Emission sources are fertilisers, fossil-fuel combustion and industrial chemical production using nitrogen. Three types of fluorinated gases developed specifically for industrial applications: Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). In the second Kyoto period starting in 2013, a fourth fluorinated gas, Nitrogen trifluoride (NF 3), will also be covered.

• •

Certain other industrial gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), contribute to both global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer. They are not covered by the Kyoto Protocol as they are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol on protecting the ozone layer.

sources of economic growth and jobs. It is estimated that meeting the 20% renewable energy target for 2020 will increase overall employment in the EU by 410 000 jobs. The EU is also offering to scale up its GHG emissions reduction for 2020 from 20% to 30% if other major economies take on their fair share of an international emissions effort. And for the long term, Europe has fixed the goal of reducing its emissions to 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050. In March 2011, the European Commission published a ‘roadmap’ setting out how this can be achieved most cost-effectively. The keystone of the EU’s climate strategy is the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), launched in 2005. The world’s first and biggest international GHG emissions trading system, the EU ETS has made climate change a boardroom issue for companies by putting a price on their carbon emissions. A strengthened system from 2013 will play a central role in achieving the Union’s climate and energy targets for 2020 and beyond.

While cutting emissions, we must also adapt to climate change
Even if the world cuts GHG emissions sharply, climate change will become more severe for decades to come because of the delayed effect of past emissions. Adapting to climate change has therefore become an indispensable complement to reducing emissions. Adaptation means anticipating the adverse impacts of climate change and acting to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause. Early action will save costs later. Examples of adaptation measures include developing crops that can tolerate drought and strengthening coastal flood defences against sea-level rise.

The EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS)
To help reduce emissions most cost-effectively, the EU has developed the world’s largest company-level system for trading in allowances to emit GHGs. The ‘capand trade’ system limits emissions from more than 12 000 large emitters in the power generation industry and in other energy-intensive industrial sectors across the 27 EU Member States, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. These installations, accounting for some 40% of total EU GHG emissions, receive allowances to emit a certain tonnage of GHGs each year. Those that emit less can sell their surplus allowances. Those that expect to emit more than their allowances cover can either invest in measures or technologies to reduce their emissions or buy additional allowances on the market to cover some or all of their excess. This ability to trade – within the limits of the overall ‘cap’ on emissions – creates flexibility, ensuring that emissions are cut where it is cheapest to do so and investments directed to where they buy the greatest emission savings. The cap on overall emissions is being reduced over time. It is currently some 6.5% below the 2005 level and by 2020 will be 21% lower. From 2012, the EU ETS includes emissions from airline flights to and from EU airports. In 2013, a reform of the EU ETS will come into effect, strengthening the system and making it more efficient. Companies will have to buy a progressively larger share of their emission allowances through auctions instead of receiving most of them for free, as is the case now.

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The poorest developing countries are especially vulnerable to climate change. As the world’s largest aid donor, the EU is giving them financial and other support to help with adaptation, including through the €7.2 billion in ‘fast-start’ climate funding the EU is providing over 2010-2012. In Europe itself, adaptation is needed at all levels, from the European right down to the local level. The European Commission has set out a framework for strengthening Europe’s resilience to climate change and is preparing a comprehensive EU adaptation strategy for publication in 2013. Up to date as of June 2012

Useful resources:
European Commission Climate Action website: European Environment Agency climate change pages: UNFCCC/Kyoto Protocol website:

Further information
DG Climate Action:


© European Union, 2012. Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged. Printed on recycled paper that has been awarded the EU eco-label for graphic paper (

© Thinkstock

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