Energy Institute

Why do we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80%?

2⁰C. That is the key figure when it comes to climate change. Experts agree that we need to keep any rise in global temperatures below this level if we are to avoid the catastrophic and costly consequences of climate change. At present, we are on course to hit a temperature increase of 6°C by the end of this century 1.

If we are to reduce this to 2°C, Europe has agreed that it needs to cut its energy-related emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) by 80% at least by 2050, compared to 1990 levels 2 (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. Emissions cuts by sector required in the EU to achieve GHG emissions reductions

European Commission (2016). 2050 Roadmap. Available Online.

  • Power
  • Road transport
  • Air and sea transport
  • Industry
  • Buildings
  • Waste
  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Total

The Irish Government holds that, at the very least and without taking account of agricultural emissions, we need to produce the energy we need for electricity, transport and heat in 2050 with no more than 20% of the CO2 and other emissions produced in 1990. It is a huge challenge affecting the way we heat and light our homes and offices, power our industries and fuel our cars.

Government representatives met in Paris at COP21 in December 2015 to decide on the way to meet this challenge.  There, they committed to action to limit the increase in global average temperature while recognising the need for worldwide emissions, which are still rising, to peak as soon as possible.

Although some progress has been made, with countries developing national climate action plans and agreeing to co-operate 3, strenuous efforts will be required to implement the changes required to meet the aspirational 1.5°C limit 4. According to the International Energy Agency, under a less ambitious 2°C scenario by 2050, the share of renewables in global electricity generation would have to increase from around 20% in 2009 to almost 60% by 2050 (Figure 10). 5

Figure 10.Share of renewables in energy generation by 2050

IEA (2015) Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2015. Available Online

  • Renewables
  • Nuclear
  • Fossil fuels

Ireland has already agreed to reduce its emissions from electricity generation, buildings and transport by at least 80% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels 6.

The EU target to reduce its carbon emissions by 2030 has been set at a reduction of 40% compared to 1990 levels. This is driven by a target for companies and industry to reduce European-wide emissions by 43% under the EU-ETS scheme. Governments have committed to an overall reduction of 30% in the non-ETS sectors of Transport, Agriculture, Industry and Commercial, Households and the Waste sector.

Even if we were to reduce overall GHG emissions by 80-95% by 2050 fossil fuels would still account for between 19-30% of final energy demand in Ireland. This means that non-renewable energy sources are still required to contribute to our energy mix over the course of the energy transition. We will likely see a move away from more carbon-intensive fuels to lower carbon options such as natural gas, and later moving from a low carbon fuel future to one with more renewable energy towards zero carbon emissions 7.