The Eighth Environment Action Programme calls for the EU to significantly reduce its consumption footprint, i.e. the environmental and climate impacts of the EU residents’ consumption. The EU’s consumption footprint showed some variation during 2010-2021, yet the 2021 value is only slightly higher than 2010. Increasing trends indicate challenges ahead in the effort to reduce the EU’s consumption footprint in the near future. Consuming differently, consuming less and focusing on product eco-design are effective strategies to reduce environmental impacts of EU consumption.

Figure 1. Weighted impacts of EU consumption in a single score (million points), divided into consumption domains from 2010 to 2021

Weighted impacts of EU consumption in a single score (million points), divided into consumption domains from 2010 to 2021

The EU’s Eighth Environment Action Programme (8th EAP) calls for a significant reduction in the EU’s consumption footprint, to bring it within planetary boundaries. The consumption footprint represents the environmental and climate impacts from the consumption of goods and services by EU citizens, irrespective of whether these are produced within or outside the EU.

The methodology used to calculate the EU consumption footprint is based on translating monetary transactions of economic sectors into emissions to the environment. Using the European Commission’s Environmental Footprint (EF) method, these emissions are converted to a single score representing all types of environmental and climate impacts.

Figure 1 displays the EU’s consumption footprint over time in a single score. During the period 2010-2021, the EU’s consumption footprint shows some variation, yet the 2021 value is only slightly over that in 2010. The overall trend can be divided into: (i) a substantial decrease between 2010 and 2016 (-13%) characterised by limited increases in consumption expenditure and high environmental efficiency improvements in goods production, and (ii) a subsequent increase between 2016 and 2021 (+17%) when increases in consumption expenditure were substantially higher than any improvements in environmental efficiency.

The domains mainly responsible for the EU’s consumption impacts are housing, food and household goods, which together account for more than 70% of the total footprint score. The relative share of each of the main consumption domains barely changes over time during 2010 and 2021, indicating that the consumption habits of EU citizens have not substantially changed in the last decade.  

Overall, EU consumption patterns are considered unsustainable as they exceed several of the planetary boundaries for specific environmental impacts, such as climate change and resource use. Key drivers of changes in consumption footprints include the level of consumption expenditure (level of affluence in EU societies), the consumption mix (type of goods and services we consume), the EU population and changes in the environmental efficiency of production networks (e.g. decarbonisation of energy production).

Reductions in the EU consumption footprint can be achieved by: (i) consuming differently, i.e. shifting to less environmentally harmful goods and services, (ii) consuming less by, e.g. extending the life span of products through circular economy measures, and (iii) scaling up eco-design of new products.

Looking to the future, the last five years have seen a continuous increase in the EU consumption footprint. If this trend continues, the EU will face serious challenges in achieving its aim of significantly reducing it's footprint by 2030.

Figure 2. Consumption footprints for EU countries in 2010 and 2021

Consumption footprints for EU countries in 2010 and 2021

Figure 2 shows the consumption footprint of the 27 EU Member States for 2021, compared with 2010, as a single, per capita score. Luxembourg shows the highest consumption footprint and Romania the lowest, with the difference between them being sixfold.

Fifteen countries registered an increase in their impacts, while 12 showed a decrease. With a few exceptions, most countries do not show important changes in their footprint for the time period in question. Lithuania and Estonia stand out with increases of more than 30% in their consumption footprint between 2010 and 2021. However, Malta, Italy and Denmark demonstrate significant reductions, of more than 10%. With the exception of Greece and Italy, whose gross domestic products (GDPs) also dropped during this period, the remaining ten countries registering a decrease in their footprint show that it is possible to reduce a national consumption footprint in a growing economy.