Greenhouse gas emissions

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 07 Dec 2018
12 min read
Greenhouse gas emissions


EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for 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. However, progress has slowed down since 2014 and preliminary estimates suggest that emissions increased in 2017.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018

The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) supports the objective of reducing EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20 % (compared with 1990) by 2020. Total EU greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were 22.4 % below 1990 levels, which is already below the 2020 target level. The main reasons for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2016 are improved energy efficiency, switching to less carbon-intensive fuels — namely from coal to gas — and an increase in the use of renewable energy sources. Structural changes in the economy, milder winters 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 1990-2016 period. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 decreased by 0.4 % compared with 2015. The 2016 decrease was mainly because less coal was used to produce heat and electricity.
According to national projections aggregated at EU level, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to decrease further by 2020. However, since 2014 progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has slowed down and preliminary 2017 results show an increase in emissions of 0.6 % compared with 2016. This was mainly because of an increase in the emissions of the transport sector year–on-year for the last 4 consecutive years and of the manufacturing and construction sector in 2017. Renewed efforts by Member States are therefore needed to ensure that the EU remains on track to meet its 2020 20 % target.
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, these projections may not reflect the latest policy developments linked to the implementation of the 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 residential, 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 about 10 % 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 2016, EU ETS emissions represented around 40 % of total EU greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emission trends, projections and targets in the EU

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

1. The 2017 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 2016, EU greenhouse gas emissions were already 22.4 % below 1990 levels (see Figure 1).

The EU improved its energy intensity over the 1990-2016 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, 2018). 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_PO2.6, 2018). 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, 2018a). Demand for energy to heat households was also lower during this period, as Europe has experienced milder winters on average since 1990 (EEA, 2018b).

Greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 0.4 % in 2016 compared with 2015. This was mainly because less coal — a carbon intensive fuel — was used to produce heat and electricity. However, emissions from road transportation increased for the third year in a row as a result of the higher transport demand and increased economic growth (AIRS_PO2.1, 2018; AIRS_PO2.9, 2018). Emissions from the residential sector also increased in 2016 mainly because the slightly colder winter conditions in 2016 compared with 2015 (EEA, 2018b) increased the demand for heating, which in turn increased the use of gas for heating purposes.  

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, 2018a).

However, since 2014 progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions has slowed down. Although this can be attributed to the fast pace of emission reductions in the period 1990-2014, the slower pace of progress after 2014 was not anticipated to this extent in the reported projections. In addition, preliminary estimates of greenhouse gas emissions for 2017 indicate an overall increase of 0.6 % compared with emissions in 2016 (EEA, 2018d). The increase in emissions in 2017 was because of increased energy demand and higher emissions from the transport, and manufacturing and construction sectors, in the context of stronger economic growth in 2017 compared with 2016 (EEA, 2018d; AIRS_PO2.1, 2018).

Renewed efforts by Member States are needed to ensure the EU remains on track to meet its 2020 20 % target. This is especially the case for the transport sector where emissions increased year-on-year for the past 4 years.

Country level information

As mentioned in the previous section, 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 (i.e. the residential and commercial, transport, agriculture, waste and smaller industrial installation sectors).

In 2016, greenhouse gas emissions from the ESD sectors represented approximately 60 % of total EU greenhouse gas emissions.

Figure 2. Greenhouse gas emissions under the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD), 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 2016, most Member States were below their national ESD targets. However, in 2016, emissions in six Member States (Belgium, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Malta and Poland) were above their national ESD targets. This is four more countries than in 2015.

According to preliminary estimates for 2017, 10 Member States 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, Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta) emissions in 2020 could exceed targets if no additional measures are implemented (EEA, 2018a).

Outlook beyond 2020

The EU supports the long-term goal of reducing the EU greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95 % by 2050 compared with 1990 levels in context of similar reductions to be taken by developed countries as a group (EU, 2018). 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 greenhouse gas 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 lead to a 32 % reduction. However, these projections, reported in 2017, may not reflect the positive effect of the latest policy developments — such as the revisions and consequent strengthening of the renewable energies and the energy efficiency directives that were in advance stage of political discussions but, formally, were only adopted in 2018 (EEA, 2018a).

Following a decision by EU leaders in March 2018 (EU, 2018), the European Commission proposed in November 2018 an EU strategy for long-term EU greenhouse gas emission reductions. The strategy provided options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions between 80 % and up to net zero emissions by 2050 (EC, 2018). The strategy is  considered central to achieving the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015).

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 those greenhouse gases that are ozone-depleting substances and which are controled by the Montreal Protocol. The national greenhouse gas 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 30 August 2018.

EC, 2018, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and the European Investment Bank ‘A Clean Planet for all — A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy’ (COM(2018) 773 final of 28 November 2018.

EEA, 2016a, Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2016, European Environment Agency, ( accessed 30 August 2018.

EEA, 2016b, Background information — Domestic climate and energy targets in the EU, European Environment Agency ( accessed 30 August 2018.

EEA, 2018a, Trends and projections in Europe 2018 — Tracking progress towards Europe's climate and energy targets, EEA Report No 16/2018, European Environment Agency.

EEA, 2018b, Trends and drivers in greenhouse gas emissions in the EU in 2016, Briefing No 5/2018, European Environment Agency ( accessed 9 November 2018.

EEA, 2018c, 'Global and European temperature (CSI 012)', European Environment Agency ( accessed 29 August 2018.

EEA, 2018d, Approximated EU greenhouse gas inventory 2017, EEA/PUBL/2018/17, 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).

EU, 2018, The EU’s low carbon economy and mid-century strategy ( accessed 9 November 2018.

UNFCCC, 2015 the Paris agreement ( accessed 31 August 2018.


AIRS_PO2.7, 2018, Energy efficiency, European Environment Agency

AIRS_PO2.9, 2018, Renewable energies, European Environment Agency

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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