Western Europe and Scandinavia have been held up as leaders in moving to a low-carbon future in electricity generation, but the reality is very mixed. Scandinavia benefits from its large hydroelectric resources, relative to population size, and therefore has a very low electricity carbon footprint. France is low carbon due to its predominantly nuclear-based generating capacity.

With the expansion of Germany’s renewables going toward the retirement of its nuclear generating capacity post-Fukushima, there has been relatively little impact on the 50%+ share of fossil fuels (44% from hard coal and lignite), and its carbon emissions have not been reduced in the past 6 years. Together with other European countries such as Italy (fossil fuel share of 50%) and Spain (30%), there has also been a significant reduction in government support for renewables growth as the percentage share of renewable generation has increased. In the UK (50%), it is planned that the gap left by the shutdown of coal-fired capacity by 2025 will be predominantly filled with natural gas supply, and the government is reducing support for renewables.

The smaller nations of Europe are a mixed bag, from the Netherlands that still supplies 80% of electricity from fossil fuels, to Belgium with its high share of nuclear and renewables, to Portugal and Denmark that seem to be progressing steadily towards a renewable future.

Overall, reductions in carbon intensity have been gained as much from a switch from coal to gas as they have been from growth in renewables. With proper accounting for methane emissions from the wellhead to the end-user, the overall climate emission reductions may be significantly over-stated. The large, and continuing, growth in the use of imported wood pellets by the UK may also be causing an overstatement of emission reductions. With reduced government support for renewables across Western Europe, any real reductions in electricity-based emissions (measured on a CO2 equivalent basis that includes other gases such as methane, rather than just CO2) may be marginal during the next decade.

Holland: High Carbon (80%)

Holland generates about 80% of its electricity from natural gas and coal, and recently opened three new coal-fired plants, although there is an agreement to close down five older ones. There is limited support for renewable energy, and the country is underperforming its’ previous commitments[1].

Germany, Italy, Denmark: High Renewables, High Carbon (54%, 50%, 40%)

The percentage share of fossil fuels within the German electricity generating system has hardly changed since 2000, as a small reduction in coal was substituted for with natural gas. The focus in Germany has been on the retirement of the low-carbon nuclear electricity generators, with the rapid growth of renewables to 31% of supply not impacting the share of fossil fuel generation. As of 2015, coal-fired and gas-fired stations provided 44% and 10% of the country’s electricity respectively. Its increased export of power to Eastern European countries has also reduced pressure on the coal-fired plants[2]. Between 2009 and 2015, Germany made no progress on carbon emissions, both in the economy overall and specifically in the electricity generating sector[3]. Much of its impressive de-carbonization since 1990 can be attributed to the one off impacts of the deindustrialization of Eastern Germany, and the closure of very old and inefficient East German coal plants, after reunification. East German carbon emissions fell 43% between 1990 and 1995[4] [5].

The remaining nuclear plants, that provide 14% of electricity, are targeted for closure by 2022. The result will be that not until at least 2022 will increases in renewables start to reduce fossil fuel generation. In fact, the proposed increase in renewables by 2025 will only be enough to compensate for the retirement of the remaining nuclear capacity. Many of the coal-fired plants have operated for less than 20 years[6] and up until very recently the country was commissioning new coal plants[7]. With discussions taking place on retiring the coal-fired generators by the 2040’s or 2050’s at the earliest, and financial support for renewables being reduced[8], the prospect for emission reductions will be limited.

In Denmark, the rapid increase in renewables has been used to reduce fossil-fuel use. That trend is set to continue with renewables growing from 42% to 60% of supply by 2025[9], replacing a significant portion of the 40% from fossil fuels. Italy generates over half its electricity using natural gas and coal, with wind and solar providing over 25%. Recently though, government support for renewables has been greatly reduced and growth in the sector seems to have significantly decelerated[10] [11].

United Kingdom: Stable Nuclear, Coal Down, Gas and Renewables Up, High Carbon (50%)

In the 1990’s the newly privatized electricity suppliers underwent a “dash for gas”, with a rapid ramp up of natural gas generating capacity. The share of natural gas in the electricity supply went from a negligible level in the early 1990’s to an over 50% share less than ten years later. This share fell from 2010 onwards as increased renewables generation acted to displace some natural gas generation, but it was still 31% of supply in 2014[12] [13]. With the planned removal of all coal generating capacity by 2025 (coal supplied 31% of electricity in 2014), there is the prospect of resurgence in natural gas supply; from both current under-utilized plants and new ones[14]. As a number of coal-fired plants closed down in the past couple of years, the share of natural gas increased to above 40% in 2016[15].

By 2025, the UK electricity supply will be split between nuclear (with new plants being brought into production to replace old ones), and an increased amount of relatively young natural gas and renewables. This young natural gas fleet could then act to lock in fossil fuel generation for up to another 20 years. With government policy moving towards a less supportive environment for renewables, the de-carbonization of electricity generation may completely stall. Another area of risk is the UK’s large-scale usage of imported wood pellets for electricity generation, accounting for about a third of renewable generation, predominantly from North America[16]. There is much disagreement about the level of emissions caused such use of wood pellets, especially ones transported over long distances, with some researchers considering them to be a relatively high carbon source[17]. As with natural gas and fugitive methane emissions, the low-carbon assumption may be invalidated by an emerging negative scientific consensus. If so, the UK would have to restate its emission levels significantly, for both natural gas and wood pellets.

Belgium, Portugal and Spain: Renewables growth, but still up to a third from fossil fuels (20-30%)

Belgium provides about 75% of its electricity from nuclear and renewables, with the balance predominantly from natural gas. With plans to increase the use of renewables, the fossil fuel share should fall significantly. With the majority of electricity supplied from wind, hydro and nuclear, Portugal and Spain are both in the same position as Belgium, although the increase in renewables has significantly slowed down[18].

Scandinavia and France: Hydro, Wind, Biomass and Nuclear with Little Carbon (<10%)

In Scandinavia, the large availability of hydro and biomass, combined with nuclear, has lead to a low-carbon electricity supply. In. With the vast majority of electricity in France being provided by nuclear, it also has a low-carbon supply.


[1] Janene Pieters (2016), NETHERLANDS LAGGING BEHIND MOST EU COUNTRIES ON RENEWABLE ENERGY, NL Times. Accessible at http://nltimes.nl/2016/03/31/netherlands-lagging-behind-eu-countries-renewable-energy

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration (2016), Germany’s renewable electricity generation grows in 2015, but coal still dominant, U.S. E.I.A. Accessible at http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26372

[3] Megan Darby (2016), German CO2 Emissions Rise `% in 2015, Climate Change News. Accessible at http://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/03/14/german-co2-emissions-rise-10-million-tonnes-in-2015/

[4] David Ravensbergen (2013), Is the German Energy Transition Everything it’s Cracked Up to Be?, Desmog Canada. Accessible at https://www.desmog.ca/2013/10/01/german-energy-transition-everything-it-s-cracked-be

[5] Umair Urfan (2014), How East Germany Cleaned Up Dirty Power, Scientific American. Accessible at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-east-germany-cleaned-up-dirty-power/

[6] Craig Morris (2015), German utilities split over modest coal clampdown, Energy Transition. Accessible at http://energytransition.de/2015/04/german-utilities-split-over-modest-coal-clamp-down/

[7] Craig Morris (2015), Germany open giant new coal plant it no longer needs, Renew Economy. Accessible at http://reneweconomy.com.au/germany-opens-giant-new-coal-plant-it-no-longer-needs-40255/

[8] Richard Fuchs (2016), German cabinet puts brakes on clean energy transition, DW. Accessible at http://www.dw.com/en/german-cabinet-puts-brakes-on-clean-energy-transition/a-19318942

[9] Energinet (2016), Energy Trends, Energinet. Accessible at http://www.energinet.dk/EN/KLIMA-OG-MILJOE/Miljoerapportering/Elproduktion-i-Danmark/Sider/Elproduktion-i-Danmark.aspx

[10] Craig Morris (2015), Happy with 25 percent wind and solar? The case of Italy and Spain, Energy Transition. Accessible at http://energytransition.de/2015/09/happy-with-25-percent-wind-and-solar-the-case-of-italy-and-spain/

[11] Global Wind Energy Council (2016), Global Wind Energy Statistics 2015, Global Wind Energy Council. Accessible at http://www.gwec.net/wp-content/uploads/vip/GWEC-PRstats-2015_LR.pdf

[12] Peter Pearson & Jim Watson (2012), UK Energy Policy 1980-2010, Institute of Engineering & Technology. Accessible at www.theiet.org/factfiles/energy/uk-energy-policy-page.cfm

[13] Carbon Brief (2016), Mapped: How the UK generates its electricity, Carbon Brief. Accessible at https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-how-the-uk-generates-its-electricity

[14] Paul Elkins (2015), UK dash for gas-fired electricity is riddled with risk, The New Scientist. Accessible at https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28521-uk-dash-for-gas-fired-electricity-is-riddled-with-risk/

[15] Adam Vaughan (2016), UK hits clean energy milestone: 50% of electricity from low carbon sources, The Guardian. Accessible at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/22/uk-hits-clean-energy-milestone-50-of-electricity-from-low-carbon-sources

[16] Keith Fletcher (2016), UK DBEIS publishes Q2 2016 energy statistics, Biomass Magazine. Accessible at http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/13768/uk-dbeis-publishes-q2-2016-energy-statistics

[17] NRDC (2016), New Study: Biomass Costlier, Dirtier Than Wind, Solar for Replacing Coal Power in the UK, Natural Resources Defense Council. Accessible at https://www.nrdc.org/media/2016/161017

[18] Global Wind Energy Council (2016), Global Wind Energy Statistics 2015, Global Wind Energy Council. Accessible at http://www.gwec.net/wp-content/uploads/vip/GWEC-PRstats-2015_LR.pdf


Teaser photo credit: Flick/Indigo Skies.