Last week saw two major events in the climate change calendar – the UNFCCC meeting in Poznan (COP 14) and the meeting of heads of state of the European Union where the final compromise text for the EU Energy and Climate package was agreed. The UN climate change conferences also have something of a trade-fair atmosphere to them. Sitting in one of the many meeting areas doing e-mail or talking with colleagues, it isn’t long before a young environmental idealist thrusts a flyer in your hand advertising a side event or bringing your attention to an important issue. One such flyer alerted the reader to the need for developed countries to take on a 40% reduction target by 2020 (followed up by a zero emissions target for 2050). It is no doubt true that such a target is needed for 2020 to robustly respond to the scientific findings on climate change, but the question must be asked if we have even the remotest of hopes of achieving such a massive reduction. The young lady distributing the flyer couldn’t answer that question when I posed it.

This then takes us back to what is happening in Brussels, where a 20% reduction by 2020 is the cornerstone of the deal. The 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 (compared to 1990) represents a huge challenge for the EU. As of 2006, EU CO2 emissions stood at 4.02 billion tonnes, compared to 4.13 billion tonnes in 1990 (IEA data), or a 2.7% reduction.

Today, the EU has some 500 big power plants, several thousand industrial facilities, 250 million cars and upwards of 30 billion m2 of not very efficient building space. To reach the 2020 EU emissions reduction goal and continue to meet EU energy needs, all of the following will need to happen (as an illustration of the scale  – other pathways are also possible):

1. Near doubling of year on year energy efficiency improvement across the economy (i.e. Mega-Joules/€ of GDP), shifting from 1.5% p.a. for the period 1990/2006 to 2.7% p.a. from this year forward.

2. Retire (or convert – see below) some 40 big coal fired power stations.

3. Build (or convert existing) 20 big coal fired power stations with carbon capture and storage and establish this as a fully commercial technology. Today, not one such facility exists anywhere in the world.

4. Build another 25 large natural gas power stations.

5. Ensure no drop in nuclear power as many existing stations come due for retirement – a small expansion (4 more plants) is probably desirable, paving the way for further growth in this industry.

6. Establish a large-scale solar power generation sector utilising widespread solar PV and concentrated solar thermal.

7. Install ~100,000 2 MW wind turbines (or equivalent – e.g. the tidal barrage in the UK).

8. Improve average vehicle on-road (i.e. entire stock on the road in 2020) efficiency by ~35%. Given a vehicle life of >12 years, this means a ramp up in efficiency starting now.

9. Introduce low CO2 footprint sustainable biofuels and expand their use to ~10% of the vehicle fuel mix. Add to this some 14 million electric (or hydrogen) vehicles.

10. Increasingly use electricity as the end-use energy source of choice – i.e. instead of burning natural gas or heating oil at home and in office buildings.

11. Replace as required other retiring energy infrastructure.

Now consider that we have just 4000 days in which to do all of this!