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Emission intensity of agriculture in Europe

Indicator Specification Created 05 Apr 2013 Published 24 Feb 2014 Last modified 04 Sep 2015, 07:00 PM
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Indicator codes: WREI 001

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)


Justification for indicator selection

Despite improvements in some regions, diffuse pollution from agriculture remains a major cause of the poor water quality currently observed in parts of Europe. Agriculture contributes 50-80 % of the total nitrogen load observed in Europe’s freshwater. The European Waters-Assessment of Status and Pressures, (a thematic assessment of the ecological and chemical status and pressures on water resources) states that the proportion of arable land represents the major driver responsible for the pressures affecting the ecological status or potential of European water bodies.

Consequences of economic activities with regard to water quality and quantity have been analysed under the WFD through the Member States’ River Basin Management Plans. The study of the link between water status (quality and quantity), relevant pressures and their economic driving forces provides important basis for the decision making and prioritization of measures with regard to achieving the objectives of the WFD. Moreover, it can help to indicate whether the economic growth in a particular industry/sector is decoupled from its environmental impact and thus whether the sector moves towards higher resource efficiency. Easily understandable indicators will be necessary to provide signals and measure progress in improving resource efficiency.

Decoupling represents a strategic approach for moving forward a global Green Economy –one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. The gross nutrient balance for nutrients provides an indication of potential water pollution and identifies those agricultural areas and systems with very high nitrogen loadings. As the indicator integrates the most important agricultural parameters with regard to potential nitrogen surplus it is currently the best available measure for nutrient leaching risk.  Economic growth is defined as the added (monetary) value of all final goods and services produced within a country (or economic sector) in a given period of time, usually a calendar year.

Scientific references

Indicator definition

The indicator is used to illustrate decoupling of economic growth (Gross Value Added-GVA) from the environmental impact (nutrient losses).The indicator displays the percentage of change in emission of nutrients from agriculture  (expressed as nutrient balance) plotted together with the change in the gross value added (GVA) of the agriculture industry over the same period of time (between 2000-2011). Absolute decoupling occurs when the environmentally relevant variable is stable or decreasing while the economic driving force is growing. Relative decoupling occurs when the growth rate of the emission is positive, but less than the growth rate of the GVA.

Furthermore, the indicator illustrates emission intensity of the agriculture sector expressed as the amount of nutrient balance in agriculture per unit of production of the agriculture sector (expressed as one million Euro of gross value added). The indicator illustrates both emission intensity based on total GVA (which includes subsidies) and emission intensity based on GVA, excluding subsidies.


Changes in nutrient emissions from agriculture (nutrient balance) between 2000-2011 (separately for nitrogen and phosphorus) are expressed in %, where the values recorded in 2000 represent 100%. Changes in GVA generated by the agriculture sector between 2000-2011 are expressed in %, where the values recorded in 2000 represent 100%.

Emission intensity is expressed in tonnes of pollutant per one million EURO of GVA.

Policy context and targets

Context description

In March 2010, the European Commission issued the European Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth ‘Europe 2020 strategy’ (5). It highlights – among others - the need of a more resource efficient economy. The “Flagship initiative” under the Europe 2020 strategy, called “A resource efficient Europe” (6), establishes resource efficiency as the guiding principle for EU policies on energy, transport, climate change, industry, commodities, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (2) defines medium and long term objectives to achieve efficient resource use in the region. Decoupling, in the sense of breaking the linkage between economic growth and resource use, is a central
concept of the strategy for making Europe resource efficient. The 2050 vision and objectives by 2020 are to be addressed in the sector initiatives that shall contribute to the resource-efficient Europe Flagship Initiative (among others e.g. the 7th EU Environmental Action Programme or the revision of the Common Agriculture Policy).


EU wide targets related to sustainable agriculture and more specifically the nutrient emission intensity have not yet been set. Resource efficiency strategic documents e.g. The “Flagship initiative” (6) presents a rather general objective of substantial growth of agricultural production without exerting more pressure on environment. 

According to the EEA Report “Resource efficiency in Europe”(7) specific national targets related to resource efficiency in agriculture have been set in 5 MS (AT, BG, CY, DK, FR). They relate mostly to the increase of share of ecologically or organically farmed areas. Specific targets on emissions of nutrients from agriculture have been
set only in Denmark :

  • Reduce the release of nitrogen from agriculture by 19,000 tonnes by 2015 and reduce it further by 2020.
  • Reduce the release of phosphorous from agriculture by 210 tonnes by 2015


Related policy documents

  • A resource efficient Europe-flagship initiative under the Europe 2020 strategy
    The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe under the Europe 2020 strategy supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth. The flagship initiative for a resource-efficient Europe provides a long-term framework for actions in many policy areas, supporting policy agendas for climate change, energy, transport, industry, raw materials, agriculture, fisheries, biodiversity and regional development. This is to increase certainty for investment and innovation and to ensure that all relevant policies factor in resource efficiency in a balanced manner.
  • COM(2010) 2020 final, Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth
    European Commission, 2010. Europe 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. COM(2010) 2020 final. 
  • Decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from economic growth
    A Report of the UNEP Working Group on Decoupling to the International Resource Panel
  • European Waters – Assessment of Status and Presures
    This report's results present good and robust European overviews of the data reported by the first RBMPs, and of the ecological status and pressures affecting Europe's waters. Europe's waters are affected by several pressures, including water pollution, water scarcity and floods. Major modifications to water bodies also affect morphology and water flow. To maintain and improve the essential functions of our water ecosystems, we need to manage them well.
  • Resource efficiency in Europe — Policies and approaches in 31 EEA member and cooperating countries
    This report provides an overview of resource efficiency policies and instruments in 31 member and cooperating countries of the European Environment Agency network (Eionet). A detailed survey was conducted during the first half of 2011 to collect, analyse and disseminate information about national experiences in developing and implementing resource efficiency policies, and to facilitate sharing of experiences and good practice. The report reviews national approaches to resource efficiency and explores similarities and differences in policies, strategies, indicators and targets, policy drivers and institutional setup and information gaps. It concludes with some EEA considerations for future policies on resource efficiency which could be considered in developing future resource efficiency policies at the EU and country levels. The analysis is illustrated with short examples of policy initiatives in the countries, described in more detail in the country profile documents available below.
  • Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe
    Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe.  COM(2011) 571  

Key policy question

Is the emission of nutrients from agricultural land to water decoupling from economic growth?


Methodology for indicator calculation

The indicator displays changes in nutrient balance of agriculture between 2000 and 2011, plotted together with changes of Gross Value Added (basic prices) generated by the agricultural sector during the same period.

∆ Nutrient balance (N, or P) = [(Nutrient balance(2011)  /  Nutrient balance(2000) ) - 1]* 100%

Data used: Nutrient balance, values in tonnes/y, values for EU MS, for years 2000 and 2011

∆ GVA = [(GVA(2011)  /  GVA(2000) )- 1]* 100%

Data used: GVA, mi. EURO/y, values for EU MS, for years 2000 and 2011

Note: Only positive values of nutrient balances are considered in the  indicator .

GVA at basic prices is output at basic prices minus intermediate consumption at purchaser prices. The basic price is the amount receivable by the producer from the purchaser for a unit of a product minus any tax on the product plus any subsidy on the product. GVA figures at current prices are used in the calculation of this indicator to allow for the direct link and extraction of Eurostat data.

The figures on subsidies on products refers to the subsidies on the output of the agricultural industry.  Output of the agricultural industry is made up of the sum of the output of agricultural products, agricultural services and of the goods and services produced in inseparable non-agricultural secondary activities.”

Methodology for gap filling

Not relevant  for the current methodology.

Methodology references

Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

Data sources in latest figures


Methodology uncertainty

The concept of decoupling is attractive for its  simplicity. Charts illustrating increasing GVA together with decreasing emission load may lead to simplified conclusions. Synthetic decoupling indicators often convey mixed or double messages. In growing economy, relative decoupling will imply that environmental pressures are still rising. If economic activity is falling, relative or even absolute decoupling may not imply a positive development for society as whole. Relationship between economic driving forces and environmental pressures is complex. Most driving forces have multiple environmental effects, and most pressures are generated by multiple driving forces, that is why there is a need to use decoupling indicators within a more complex analytical framework.

Subsidies, that could bring a positive effect to the change in GVA of Member States which entered the EU after 2000, are not considered in the methodology used.

This indicator relates only to developments  within countries over time. Future indicator development may include also normalisation to area of arable land or produce expressed in metrics.

GVA reflects the growth of the entire agriculture industry, i.e. not only of  the crop production related sub-sector.

The estimation and use of GVA at constant prices is being considered for future versions of this indicator to show a fuller picture by elucidating the effects of inflation.


Data sets uncertainty

Not relevant

Rationale uncertainty

In "Indicators to measure decoupling of environmental pressure from economic growth", OECD, 2002

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Work description

Short-term: Indicator assessment shall be updated with new data available in Eurostat.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2014/12/15 13:00:00 GMT+1

Work description

Decomposing the indicator to illustrate the effect of key factors influencing the economic growth of the agricultural sector (factors affecting the GVA), as well the assessment of key factors affecting the emission of nutrients from agriculture.  Further assessment on the impact of subsidies on emission intensity and namely on decoupling of emissions from economic growth. Specific assessment of new MS, where subsidies increased during the assessed period.

Resource needs

No resource needs have been specified


Not started


2014/12/15 00:00:00 GMT+1

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata


Indicator code
WREI 001
Version id: 1
Primary theme: Water Water


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Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year


DPSIR: Pressure
Typology: Efficiency indicator (Type C - Are we improving?)

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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