Emissions and energy use in large combustion plants in Europe

Between 2004 and 2020, emissions from large combustion plants in the EU decreased: sulphur dioxide (SO2) and dust by 91%, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 68%. Declines in emissions and improvements in environmental performance were largely driven by European policy, which sets legally binding emission limit values. The amount of fossil fuels used decreased by 26%, as energy production shifts to climate-friendly sources and coal is no longer the most used fuel in large combustion plants in Europe. Stricter emission limit values and policies aimed at increasing the use of renewable or cleaner fuels are expected to drive further declines in combustion plant emissions in coming years.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Large combustion plants (LCPs) are responsible for around 40% of the EU’s electricity production capacity. These largely depend on fossil fuels, resulting in the emission of pollutants to air, water and land, with damaging effects on ecosystems. To mitigate the environmental impact, EU policy aims to reduce LCP emissions.

Emissions from LCPs decreased significantly over the period 2004-2020: SO2 by 91% and NOx by 68%. This happened throughout the period, but two main turning points are apparent. The first one, over the period 2007-2009, when LCP operators had the double effect of needing to adapt their plants tonew emission limit values from the LCP Directive and the financial crisis that started at the end of 2008. The second turning point, around 2015-2016, coincided with the moment operators had to comply with stricter yet limits as provided by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which entered fully into force that year.

LCPs vary significantly in size, from 50 MWt to even larger than 2,000 MWt. Declines in emissions correspond to a significant improvement in environmental performance across all LCP sizes, particularly among the very large ones, which, although including only 21% of LCPs, account for 70% of installed capacity.

These reductions demonstrate the value of European policy in driving improvements in the environmental performance of LCPs, with LCP operators adopting pollution reduction measures, more efficient operating processes and end-of-pipe pollution abatement techniques to comply with legislation.

In 2020, 2,928 LCPs were covered by the scope of the IED. European countries rely to different degrees on combustion plants to meet their energy demands. However, generally, the number of plants in a given country is proportional to its size and population. Italy, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia did not report 2020 data, and therefore the number of plants in Europe is estimated to be some 4,007 plants, taking into account the latest numbers from these four countries.  

The fuel mix plays a key role in emission generation, with coal and liquid fuels substantially dirtier than other options. Shifting from fossil fuels to other energy carriers and sources is also paramount to achieving climate mitigation goals. Changes to the fuel mix have also contributed to emission reductions over the period, along with other factors, including broader economic and societal changes, changes to international fuel prices and industry initiatives. In 2020, natural gas became the major fuel input, surpassing coal for the first time, which is being phase out progressively. However, the two fossil fuels are still very significant in the overall mix, covering over 70% of the total fuel input (Figure 2). Further emission reductions are expected in the coming years as a result of new, stricter IED permits, and energy and climate change mitigation policies, driving the use of renewable or cleaner fuels and aimed at achieving the EU’s ambition of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

Overall, LCP fuel consumption decreased by 22% between 2004 and 2020 (Figure 2). The majority of this decrease occurred after 2010 and can be largely attributed to a decrease in the consumption of fossil fuels, particularly coal (down 44% since 2010) and liquid fuels (by 48% since 2010). This could reflect a shift in Europe’s energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources, with natural gas still playing a bridging role in this transition and boasting greater consumption (38% of the total) than coal for the first time in 2020. However, coal consumption remains the second largest contributor to total LCP fuel consumption (35% of the total). Achieving the goals set by the European Green Deal will imply abandoning fossil fuels much faster, including natural gas, so the trends must accelerate in the coming years.

Almost all EU countries have reduced or stabilised coal use over the period, with five countries (Spain, Poland, Greece, Czechia and France) contributing about two thirds of the reduction in coal consumption (Figure 2) in Europe in 2020, even though coal still counts for more than 50% of fuel input. Another interesting phenomenon is the consistent increase in biomass as a fuel input (64% since 2010). While this has its origin in climate mitigation goals, it can result in increases in air pollution, particularly particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (EEA, 2019b).

Supporting information


References and footnotes