Greenhouse gas emissions

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2017 Last modified 24 Jun 2020
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EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook of the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Total greenhouse gas emission trends and projections

Green triangle: improving trend

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared with 1990 levels — 2020 Climate and Energy Package

Green circle: it is expected that the objective will be met by 2020


The decreasing trend in greenhouse gas emissions and their future evolution as projected by the EU Member States indicate that the 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target will be met

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2017


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) supports the objective of reducing EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20 % (compared with 1990) by 2020.

Emission projections indicate that Europe should meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target. There was a small (0.5%) increase in the 2015 greenhouse gas emissions compared with 2014. Despite this, total EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 were 22.1 % below 1990 levels, which is already below the 2020 target level. The main reasons for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2015 are improved energy efficiency, switching to less carbon-intensive fuels, and an increase in the use of renewable energy sources. Structural changes in the economy, relatively mild weather conditions and reduced economic activity as a result of the 2008 economic downturn also played important roles in the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the 1990-2015 period. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 compared with 2014 was triggered by higher heat demand from households and services as a result of slightly colder winter conditions in Europe, and by higher road transport demand. According to national projections aggregated at EU level, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to decrease further by 2020, and indeed preliminary 2016 results show a reduction in emissions of 0.7 % compared with 2015.

The EU also has a longer term objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95 % by 2050 and an agreed target of a 40 % reduction by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. EU Member States expect that planned policies will result in reductions in EU emissions of 30-32 % below 1990 levels by 2030, falling short of the 40 % reduction target. However, it is as yet unclear to what extent these projections reflect the latest policy developments that are linked to the implementation of the recently endorsed 2030 target.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP includes the objective for the EU to meet its 2020 climate and energy targets and to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95 % by 2050, compared with 1990 levels (EU, 2013). Greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause of climate change. Climate change will further aggravate environmental problems by causing prolonged droughts and heatwaves, floods, storms, forest fires, and soil and coastal erosion, as well as new or more virulent forms of human, animal or plant disease. Climate change is also expected to significantly increase the pressure on Europe’s water resources (EEA, 2016a).

Policy targets and progress

The EU has committed to achieving a reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions of at least 20 % by 2020, compared with 1990 levels (EEA, 2016b). This objective is embodied in both European and international commitments and targets, which clearly align with the objectives of the 7th EAP described above.

The overall emission reduction target is separated into one EU-wide target for large industrial installations, covered by the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (EU, 2009a) and 28 binding national targets for all emissions not covered by the EU ETS. These national targets, set under the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD) (EU, 2009b), cover sectors such as households, buildings, transport, agriculture, services, waste and smaller industrial installations. The EU ETS is expected to deliver a 21 % reduction in its emissions, and the non-ETS sectors should reduce emissions by 9.3 % by 2020 (both compared with 2005 levels). Together, these will lead to a reduction of 20 % in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared with 1990 levels.

Within the ETS system, the EU sets limits on emissions from high-emitting industry sectors. With these limits as a reference, companies can buy and sell emission allowances as needed. This ‘cap-and-trade’ approach gives companies the flexibility they need to cut their emissions in a cost-effective way. The EU ETS covers more than 11 000 power stations and manufacturing plants in the 28 EU Member States, as well as in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. Emissions from commercial aircraft flying within and between these countries are also covered. In 2015, EU ETS emissions represented around 42 % of total EU greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 1. GHG emission trends, projections and targets in the EU, 1990-2050.

Data sources:
European Environment Agency (EEA) National emissions reported to the UNFCCC and to the EU Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Mechanism
European Environment Agency (EEA) Approximated greenhouse gas emissions
European Environment Agency (EEA) Greenhouse gas projections 
European Environment Agency (EEA) EEA – Indicator CSI 010

1. The 2016 data are preliminary estimates.
2. EU targets and goals are expressed against 1990 levels.
3. Projections 'WEM' are projections 'with existing measures'.
4. Projections 'WAM' are projections 'with additional measures'.


In 2015, EU greenhouse gas emissions were already 22.1 % below 1990 levels (see Figure 1). Greenhouse gas emissions for 2015 increased by 0.5 % compared with 2014 mainly as a result of higher heat demand from households and services, owing to the slightly colder winter conditions in Europe, and because of higher road transport demand, which increased for the second year in a row. In 2015 compared with 2014 the greenhouse gas emissions from the ETS sectors decreased by 0.7 %, whereas emissions from non-ETS sectors - and the household, services and transport are amongst the non-ETS sectors - increased by 1.4 %.     

The EU improved its energy intensity over the 1990-2015 period examined. This was because of energy efficiency improvements and structural changes in the economy, as well as reduced energy consumption as a result of the 2008 economic downturn (for more information, see the Energy efficiency briefing (AIRS_PO2.7, 2017). Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can also be explained by changes in the mix of fossil fuels used - more gas and less coal - as well as by the increasing use of renewable energy sources (RES) (for more information, see the Renewable energies briefing (AIRS_PO2.9, 2017). These changes reflect the effects of policies and measures supporting the deployment of RES (e.g. feed-in tariffs), the establishment of a carbon price through the EU ETS, and external factors such as fluctuations in fossil fuel prices (EEA, 2015).  Demand for energy to heat households was also lower during this period, as Europe has experienced milder winters on average since 1990 (EEA, 2016c).

Preliminary estimates of greenhouse gas emissions for 2016 indicate an overall decrease of 0.7 % compared with emissions in 2015 (EEA, 2017a); the 2016 emissions from the transport and the residential and commercial sectors (two important non-ETS sectors) are nevertheless expected to increase their emissions compared with 2015 (EEA, 2017b). 

Greenhouse gas emissions for the EU - aggregated from the EU Member State reported projections - are expected to decrease further to 26 % by 2020 with the current measures that are already in place. Additional measures (currently planned by Member States) could further reduce emissions to 27 % below 1990 levels. Most of the savings in greenhouse gas emissions are expected to take place within the EU ETS sectors (EEA, 2017b).

Country level information

To meet the 2020 greenhouse gas emission target, the EU adopted a climate and energy package in 2009, comprising a legislative set of binding targets that defined a single target for all EU emissions covered by the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) and a set of national targets for all other emissions not covered by the EU ETS. Over the 2005–2015 period, the ETS sectors saw reductions in emissions of approximately 24 %. Reductions in emissions from combustion installations, which represent more than 70 % of all ETS emissions and are dominated by electricity generation, occurred largely as a result of changes in the fuel mix to produce heat and electricity. The use of hard coal and lignite fuels in electricity generation has declined since 2005 and electricity generation from renewable sources has increased considerably in the same period. The reduction in emissions was also due to improvements in transformation efficiency for electricity generation, which means that less primary energy was necessary to generate the same electricity. The cement, lime and iron and steel sector, another key contributor of greenhouse gas emissions within the ETS, followed similar emission trends to the combustion installations and decreased its emissions, to a large extent, because of reduced production as a result of the 2008 economic downturn.

In contrast to the sectors in the EU ETS, which are regulated at EU level, it is the responsibility of EU Member States to define and implement national policies and measures to limit emissions from the sectors covered by the ESD, the residential and commercial, transport, agriculture, waste and smaller industrial installation sectors. In 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from the ESD sectors represented approximately 58 % of total EU greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 2. GHG emissions under the Effort Sharing Decision, by country

Data sources:
a: European Environment Agency (EEA) Approximated greenhouse gas emissions
b: European Commission Verified emissions under the EU ETS
c: European Environment Agency (EEA)  Effort Sharing Decision (ESD) 
d: European Commission Commission Decision 2013/162/EU
e: European Commission Commission Implementing Decision 2013/634/EU

The national emission targets for 2020 range from a 20 % reduction in emissions (compared with 2005 levels) to a 20 % increase. Less wealthy countries are allowed emission increases in the ESD sectors, because their relatively higher economic growth is likely to be accompanied by higher emissions. Nevertheless, their targets represent a limit on their emissions compared with the emissions projected using business-as-usual growth rates. All Member States are therefore required to make an effort to reduce emissions (EC, 2015).

Examples of potential policies and measures that could be implemented to reduce emissions include reducing transport demand, promoting public transport, a shift away from transport based on fossil fuels, support schemes for the retrofitting of building stock, more efficient heating and cooling systems, renewable energy for heating and cooling, more climate-friendly farming practices and the conversion of livestock manure to biogas (EC, 2015).

The assessment of current progress towards the ESD targets compares Member States’ ESD emissions for each year with the annual national targets. In 2015, all Member States but one (Malta) were below their national ESD targets. According to preliminary estimates for 2016, four Member States (Belgium, Finland, Ireland and Malta) had exhibited ESD emissions higher than their national targets (Figure 2).

National projections show that, in most Member States, ESD emissions will remain below annual ESD targets until 2020. However, in seven Member States (Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Malta, Ireland and Luxembourg) emissions in 2020 could exceed targets if no additional measures are implemented.

Outlook beyond 2020

The EU has also adopted a long-term goal for 2050 of reducing Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95 % compared with 1990 levels. To ensure that the EU is on a cost-effective track towards meeting this objective, the European Council adopted, in 2014, a new set of climate and energy targets for 2030 (EC, 2014). This includes a binding target of reducing GHG emissions by at least 40 % compared with 1990 levels.

Looking towards 2030, projections from Member States show that both the current measures in place and the additional national measures that were in the planning stage at the time projections were made will not be able to deliver sufficient savings to enable the EU to achieve the reduction target of 40 % below 1990 levels (Figure 1). The pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions is projected to slow down after 2020, despite the fact that mid- and long-term targets will require more rapid reductions. Existing policies and measures are expected to result in a reduction in emissions of 30 % by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and the implementation of additional measures could increase this reduction to 32 %. However, it is not yet clear to what extent these projections reflect the latest policy developments, such as the revisions and consequent strengthening of the renewable energies and of the energy efficiency Directives, to the implementation of the 2030 GHG emissions target (EEA, 2017a).

About the indicator

This indicator presents past and future trends for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. In line with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines, the indicator covers the following greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, sulphur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride. These are weighted by their global warming potential, aggregated and presented in CO2-equivalent units. The list of gases does not include the greenhouse gases that are ozone-depleting substances and are controlled by the Montreal Protocol. The national GHG totals include indirect CO2, when reported by the countries, as well as emissions from international aviation, whereas they exclude emissions or removals from land use, land-use change and forestry and international shipping. For the past, the indicator uses the greenhouse gas inventory and ETS data. It also uses projection data reported by EU Member States in two scenarios: a ‘with existing measures’ (WEM) scenario and a ‘with additional measures’ (WAM) scenario. The WAM scenario takes into account measures planned but not yet adopted. However, not all EU Member States reported a WAM scenario, so the predicted reduction might not take all planned measures into account and therefore may be an underestimate.

Footnotes and references

EC, 2014, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘A policy framework for climate and energy in the period from 2020 up to 2030’ (COM(2014) 15 final of 22 January 2014).

EC, 2015, ‘Effort sharing decision’ ( accessed 31 August 2017.

EEA, 2015, Trends and projections in Europe 2015 — Tracking progress towards Europe’s climate and energy targets, EEA Report No 4/2015, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2016a, Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016, European Environment Agency, ( accessed 31 August 2017.

EEA, 2016b, Background information - Domestic climate and energy targets in the EU, European Environment Agency ( accessed 31 August 2017.

EEA, 2016c, Analysis of key trends and drivers in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU between 1990 and 2014, European Environment Agency ( accessed 31 August 2017.

EEA, 2017a, Approximated EU greenhouse gas inventory 2016, EEA/PUBL/2017/038, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2017b, Trends and projections in Europe 2017 —  Tracking progress towards Europe's climate and energy targets, EEA Report No 17/2017, European Environment Agency.

EU, 2009a, Directive 2009/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 amending Directive 2003/87/EC so as to improve and extend the greenhouse gas emission allowance trading scheme of the Community (OJ L 140/63, 5.6.2009).

EU, 2009b, Decision No 406/2009/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the effort of Member States to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Community’s greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments up to 2020 (OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, p. 1 - 13).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ Annex A, paragraph 43(a) (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200).


AIRS_PO2.7, 2017, Energy efficiency, European Environment Agency

AIRS_PO2.9, 2017, Renewable energies, European Environment Agency

Environmental indicator report 2017 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No21/2017, European Environment Agency


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