The Eighth Environment Action Programme calls for the EU to significantly reduce its consumption footprint by 2030, i.e. the environmental and climate impacts of its consumption, irrespective of whether products consumed are produced in or outside the EU. From 2010 to 2021, the consumption footprint increased, albeit only slightly, by around 4%. Projections indicate that it will increase further by 2030, triggered by economic growth and current consumption patterns and therefore that the EU is rather unlikely to meet its aim by 2030. Switching to less environmentally harmful products and curbing increasing consumption levels would be necessary to keep the impacts of EU consumption within planetary boundaries.

Figure 1. EU consumption footprint, in a single indexed score (2010=100), broken down into the most significant contributing impact categories of the Environmental Footprint (EF) method, from 2010 to 2021
EU consumption footprint, in a single indexed score (2010=100), broken down into the most significant contributing impact categories of the Environmental Footprint (EF) method, from 2010 to 2021

The EU’s Eighth Environment Action Programme (8th EAP) calls for a significant reduction in the Union’s consumption footprint, to bring it within planetary boundaries as soon as possible. To fulfil this ambition, the EU must accelerate its transition towards adopting a regenerative growth model, to give back to the planet more than it takes, as outlined in the EU’s 2020 circular economy action plan . The consumption footprint represents the environmental and climate impacts of the consumption of goods and services by EU citizens, irrespective of whether these goods and services are produced within or outside the EU.

Different approaches can be used to calculate a consumption footprint. The methodology used for this indicator is based on life cycle assessment (LCA): LCA data for a basket of representative products are used to calculate environmental impacts and these are then scaled up to represent impacts from entire EU consumption, based on consumption statistics. The indicator uses the European Commission’s environmental footprint method to assess environmental impacts in 16 different categories, including climate change and resource depletion, which can be aggregated to give a single score, based on a normalisation and weighting system.

In the period 2010-2021, the EU’s consumption footprint increased slightly, by almost 4%. In the same period, gross domestic product (GDP) increased by almost 8%. This indicates that the impacts of the EU’s consumption are growing at a slower pace than its economy, suggesting a decoupling of the consumption footprint from economic growth . However, the consumption footprint and GDP still appear to be somewhat correlated (e.g. they both declined in 2020 during the economic slowdown caused by pandemic-related measures). This means that reducing the impacts of EU consumption in a growing economy will be challenging.

In 2021, the consumption of food contributed the most (48%) to the total environmental impact of consumption in the EU, followed by housing (19%) and mobility (15%). The types of environmental impact that make the largest contributions to the consumption footprint are those related to climate change (24%), the use of fossil resources (14%) and the release of particulate matter (12%) .

Overall, the environmental impacts of EU citizens’ consumption is considered high. Scientific evidence increasingly suggests that, based on current consumption footprint levels, the EU exceeds its fair share of planetary boundaries for five environmental impact categories, including particulate matter, climate change and resource use (EC, 2023; Sanye Mengual and Sala, 2023) .

Based on current consumption patterns and expected economic growth, the EU’s consumption footprint is projected to increase further by 2030 . Therefore, the EU is rather unlikely to meet its aim of significantly reducing this footprint by 2030.

The EU could reduce its consumption footprint by (1) reducing the overall amount of goods and services consumed, (2) shifting to the consumption of goods with a lower environmental impact or (3) a combination of the above. In this regard, it is worth noting that, in general, service consumption has less of an impact on the environment than the consumption of goods. Adopting circular business models based on, for example, sharing or product-as-a-service schemes would help the EU to move in this direction.

Figure 2. Level of consumption footprint (points per capita) for EU countries in 2021 compared to 2010
Level of consumption footprint (points per capita) for EU countries in 2021 compared to 2010

In 2021, Denmark had the highest consumption footprint of the 27 EU Member States and Slovakia had the lowest, with a score less than half that of Denmark.

Between 2010 and 2021, 13 Member States showed increases in their consumption footprints, while 14 showed decreases. These changes were relatively small in most countries, however. The largest increases, of more than 15%, were registered for Croatia, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania and Romania. On the other hand, significant decreases, of more than 10%, were registered for Ireland, Slovenia and Luxembourg, indicating that reducing a national consumption footprint in a growing economy is possible.