Minimize EU Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction

EU Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Goals of 55% by 2030

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September 16, 2020: Today, at her State of the Union address before the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, proposed a new target of a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The current target is a 40% reduction. With such ambitious goals ahead for Europe, understanding how greenhouse gases end up in the atmosphere and the intricacies of the carbon cycle is essential – something that satellites observing Earth can help provide. 1)

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Figure 1: Ursula von der Leyen is the President of the European Commission and in her 2020 State of the Union address, she set a new target of a 55% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The previous target had been a 40% reduction (image credit: European Union)

Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the economic issues that ensue, President von der Leyen linked the pandemic to our fragile world, “A virus a thousand times smaller than a grain of sand exposed how delicate life can be. It brought into sharper focus the planetary fragility that we see every day through melting glaciers, burning forests and now through global pandemics.”

She highlighted that although normal life effectively froze during lockdown, the planet has continued to suffer the consequences of climate change, and that the urgency to act is paramount.

Referring to the European Green Deal, the blueprint for transformation, President von der Leyen said, “At the heart of it, is our mission to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and we need to go faster and do things better. The European Commission is proposing to increase the 2030 target for emission reduction to at least 55%.”

Commenting on the address, ESA’s Director of Earth Observation Programs, Josef Aschbacher, said, “This new target is indeed ambitious, but climate change is here, it’s real and it’s scary.

“While ESA doesn’t set policy, the wealth of information that is readily available from satellites provides the facts on our changing world – essential information for decision-making.

“Monitoring change is clearly important, but satellites also provide data to understand specific aspects of how Earth works as a system, such as the carbon cycle, which is key to unravelling intricate feedback loops and assessing eventual risks.

“Looking to the future and the need to directly monitor greenhouse gas emissions, Europe’s Copernicus CO2M (Carbon Dioxide Monitoring) mission will discriminate emissions through human activity, and will be key to tracking efforts to de-carbonize Europe.”

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Figure 2: High-resolution simulation of total column carbon dioxide plumes from Berlin and nearby power plants on 2 July 2015. The data were generated by Empa, as part of the ESA-funded Smartcarb study (image credit: Empa, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) 2)

When thinking of the causes of climate change, one tends naturally to think of industrial plants pumping harmful gases into the atmosphere, congested roads and the decimation of tropical rainforest to make way for agriculture such as cattle farming.

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Figure 3: Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide fuel our warming climate (image credit: Pixabay/Foto-RaBe) 3)

While this is certainly true, actions such as these have far-reaching consequences beyond the immediate warming effect of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

For example, less obvious and difficult to measure directly, is the release of methane (CH4) to the atmosphere from the melting of permafrost.

Permafrost holds carbon-based remains of vegetation and animals that froze before decomposition could set in. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds almost double the amount of carbon than is currently in the atmosphere.

Determined by temperature, permafrost is an ‘essential climate variable’. Through ESA’s Climate Change Initiative, temperature data that have been collected over years are gathered to determine trends and to understand more about how permafrost fits into the climate system.

Figure 4: This animation shows the permafrost extent in the northern hemisphere from 2003 to 2017. The maps, produced by ESA’s Climate Change Initiative, are providing new insights into thawing permafrost in the Arctic. Continuous permafrost is defined as a continuous area with frozen material beneath the land surface, except for large bodies of water. None-continuous permafrost is broken up into separate areas and can either be discontinuous, isolated or sporadic. It is considered isolated if less than 10% of the surface has permafrost below, while sporadic means 10%-50% of the surface has permafrost below, while discontinuous is considered 50%-90%. (video credit: Permafrost CCI, Obu et al,. 2019 via the CEDA archive) 4)

ESA’s Climate Change Initiative collects and provides a wide range of stable, long-term, satellite-based essential climate variable data products derived from multiple satellite datasets, through international collaboration – not only key to understanding the changes taking place through climate change, but essential for climate policy.

Oceans cover more than 70% of the planet so it’s no surprise that they play a key role in our climate. But what may come as more of a surprise is that over the last 50 years, oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat in the atmosphere caused by greenhouse gases from human activity. They also further help cool the planet by drawing down about a third of human-related carbon dioxide emissions – but this isn’t necessarily good news.

Scientists discovered this fact using information from satellite missions such as ESA’s SMOS, the EUMETSAT MetOp series and Copernicus Sentinel-3, which offer measurements of salinity, surface wind speeds and sea-surface temperature.

The problem is that increasing temperatures of ocean waters is leading to sea-level rise through a phenomenon known as thermal expansion and continental ice melt. And the more carbon dioxide that dissolves into the oceans, the more it leads to ocean acidification – a serious environmental problem that makes it difficult for some marine life to survive.

Satellites such as the Copernicus Sentinel-2 mission data are used to track changes in vegetation and land use – another factor contributing to climate change and habitat loss. ESA’s upcoming Biomass mission will be able to determine the amount of biomass and carbon stored in forests.

These are just a few examples of how information from satellites is vital to putting the pieces of the climate jigsaw together.

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Figure 5: Carbon dioxide continually flows into (blue) and out (red) of the ocean. The oceans store carbon for thousands of years, so most of the carbon dioxide coming out of the ocean within the equatorial Pacific was previously in the atmosphere before the time of the industrial revolution (image credit: University of Exeter College of Life and Environmental Sciences)

Europe is extremely well-placed to monitor and study our changing world, particularly through the European Commission’s Copernicus program – the biggest environmental monitoring program in the world. As part of the program, ESA develops and builds the satellite missions that provide key data for numerous environmental services, including its Climate Change Service.

Coming back to the issue of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery, which was also one of the main subjects of President von der Leyen’s speech, ESA has been instrumental in developing the Rapid Action on Coronavirus Dashboard and the ESA, NASA, JAXA Dashboard.

Figure 6: As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives across the globe, Earth-observing satellites take the pulse of our planet from space. While the global lockdown has had a massive impact on daily life and the economy, there have been environmental benefits that are visible from space. How can we preserve these positives when returning to ‘business as usual’? This video includes an interview in English with Josef Aschbacher, Director of Earth Observation Programs. 5)



1) ”Providing the facts to help Europe achieve 55%,” ESA Applications, 16 September 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth
/Space_for_our_climate/Providing_the_facts_to_help_Europe_achieve_55

2) Simulated data showing carbon dioxide plumes,” ESA Applications, 31 July 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth
/Space_for_our_climate/Providing_the_facts_to_help_Europe_achieve_55

3) ”Industrial emissions of carbon dioxide fuel our warming climate,” ESA Applications, 31 July 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth/Copernicus
/Contract_signed_to_build_Europe_s_carbon_dioxide_monitoring_mission

4) ”Permafrost extent 2003-2017,” ESA Applications, 25 February 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth
/Space_for_our_climate/Providing_the_facts_to_help_Europe_achieve_55

5) ”Seen from space: COVID-19 and the environment,” ESA Applications, 15 May 2020, URL: https://www.esa.int/Applications/Observing_the_Earth
/Space_for_our_climate/Providing_the_facts_to_help_Europe_achieve_55



The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net)

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