Worldwide Carbon Emissions Set for Record Levels in 2014 – Can the EU Step up its Leadership in New York and beyond?

Jonas Schoenefeld, Roisin Moriarty |

Recent data from the Global Carbon Project show that worldwide carbon dioxide emissions—the main driver of climate change—are set to reach a record-breaking 40 billion tones in 2014, led by a 2.5% rise in fossil fuel burning. In order to maintain a 66% chance of keeping global warming below 2 degrees—a widely accepted safety threshold—global future emissions should not exceed 1,200 billion tones. At current emissions levels, this carbon quota may be used up in just 30 years.[1]

Next to China and the USA, the EU is one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters. While the good news are that the EU managed to reduce its carbon emissions by 1.8 per cent over the last year, the EU continues to export a third of its emissions to China and other producers. In other words, a large chunk of indirect EU emissions simply do not show up on its balance sheet.

As world leaders meet in New York this week to discuss urgent actions, the world will be looking to the EU as one of the early adopters of climate policy and self-proclaimed leader on climate change. However, current leadership prospects appear weak at best. The fact that EU leaders have delayed their decision on precise EU emissions targets until October 2014 has drawn criticism from Ban Ki-moon himself, as he hoped the EU would send a strong signal to other countries this week. Current EU proposals to cut emissions by 40% over the 1990 baseline by 2030 alongside renewable energy and energy efficiency targets have been criticized for lack of ambition. Over ten years, this would mean a 2% annual decrease, the same level as current rates, and not accounting for it exported emissions.

By contrast, scientists from the Global Carbon Project show that global emissions must decrease by more than 5% annually for several decades to limit global warming to 2 degrees. But how to share these emissions reductions? A paper published alongside the Global Carbon Project data suggests that a ‘mixed’ approach where richer countries reduce emissions more, but all contribute some emission reductions appears most politically viable.[2]

In concrete terms, this means that the EU would have to reduce its emissions by well above 5% each year going forward. Given the 1.8% reduction between 2013 and 2014 and the 20% reduction by 2020 target, it is clear that the current approach is too weak for the EU to seriously lead on climate change in order to limit warming to 2 degrees. If the EU is to lead in New York this week and in Paris in 2015, it would be well advised to take these figures seriously.

[1]See Le Quéré et al. (2014) Global Carbon Budget 2014. Earth System Science Data Discussions (manuscript in discussions),; Friedlingstein et al. (2014) Persistent growth of CO2 emissions and implications for reaching climate targets. Nature Geoscience,

[2]Raupach et al. (2014) Sharing a quota on cumulative carbon emissions. Nature Climate Change,