EU policies deliver greenhouse gas emission reductions

Article Published 13 Jun 2014 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
The European Union has been reducing its greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. The EU has ‘over-achieved’ its Kyoto target for the period 2008–2012 and is projected to ‘over-achieve’ its 2020 targets. Can we reduce GHG emissions and have a strong economy at the same time? What was the impact of the recent recession on the EU’s GHG emissions? Does policy work?

Since the beginning of global negotiations, both the European Union collectively and the Member States have been committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate climate change. In 2002, the EU and its 15 Member States at that time ratified the Kyoto Protocol, thereby committing to national targets as well as a joint target of collectively reducing the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions for the first commitment period 2008-2012 by 8 % compared to the 1990 levels. Currently, the EU-28 has committed to cutting by 2020 its emissions to 20% below 1990 levels.

We have recently provided the official GHG emission data for 2012 to the UN. The results are clear. In 2012, the EU’s average emissions stood 19.2 % below 1990 levels. The EU has not only achieved its commitments, it has actually succeeded in reducing its emissions much further. Moreover, this steady downward trend is expected to continue in the second commitment period 2013-2020.

Economic growth vs emissions

Although economic growth has often been associated with an increase in GHG emissions, it does not always have to be the case. Investing in energy efficiency measures and switching to less carbon-intensive fuels for example might result in both economic growth and lower emissions.

The EU figures actually show that it is possible to break the link between economic growth and GHG emissions. Between 1990 and 2012, the EU economy grew by 45% (in GDP) while GHG emissions were reduced by 19%. In this period, the emission intensity of the EU economy, as well as the national economies, also decreased. In other words, EU countries managed to produce more output and/or value (GDP) while releasing smaller amounts of GHG per output/value. We can clearly see that emission intensities per GDP decreased in all EU countries and are converging.

These structural improvements were also reflected in emissions per capita. Although the EU population increased in this period, GHG emissions per capita decreased by 24 %.

Recession only one among several factors

In 2008, the EU economy started feeling the impact of the global recession. This has certainly affected economic output in Europe, and subsequently GHG emissions. Between 2008 and 2012, the EU economy contracted by 1.4%, but GHG emissions were reduced even more – by 9.2%. Moreover, the dip linked to recession has not altered the long-term downward trend. The EU is reducing its GHG emissions steadily.

According to our analyses, economic recession can explain only between 30 and 50% of the GHG reductions in this period.

Investing in renewables pays off

Other factors can explain the remaining part. They include, as mentioned above, a structural improvement of the EU economy towards a production system generating lower emissions per output and an increasing share of renewable energy in the energy mix. Renewables are meeting a greater share of Europe’s energy demand, which, in turn, boosts the EU’s climate mitigation efforts. Such structural changes have been ushered and facilitated by a series of EU legislation linked to climate and energy policies.

Effective implementation delivers further reductions

The implementation at national level of the 2009 climate and energy package is expected to significantly reduce emissions further. Potential savings from industrial emissions covered by the EU Emissions Trading System as well as emissions from other sectors covered by the Effort Sharing Decision are immense.

Looking at the progress we have achieved since 1990, a long-term policy vision at EU level and a series of measures around energy efficiency, climate mitigation and renewables certainly seems to work. Looking forward, it is clear that our future gains will depend on how well we implement the policies and the measures at hand and in mind.



Executive Director

Editorial published in the issue no. 2014/2 of the EEA newsletter, June 2014


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