Greenhouse gas emission intensity of electricity generation in Europe

The use of fossil fuels increased in 2021, leading to higher emissions of greenhouse gases across the EU, especially in the energy sector, compared with 2020. This led to an increase in the greenhouse gas emission intensity of EU power generation: generating 1 kilowatt hour in 2021 emitted, on average, 4% more CO2 than in 2020, but 30% less than it did a decade ago. Policies addressing climate change, efficient and renewable energy supply and use, and industrial emissions have been effective in lowering carbon-intensive energy supply over time. However, the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic increased energy and electricity use in 2021, resulting in more coal use in the generation mix.

Published: ‒ 25min read

The EU electricity sector is expected to provide one of the most significant contributions to climate mitigation by 2030 and be a cornerstone for the Union to reach net climate neutrality by 2050, according to recent scenarios. For that to happen, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity of the sector needs to fall drastically this decade.

In 2021, the sector was 52% less GHG intensive than in 1990, yet 4% more than in 2020, as economic activity rebounded after the COVID-19 pandemic. Electricity generation increased by just 4%, compared with 2020 . The 2021 worsening of the GHG emission intensity of the sector occurred against the backdrop of a minor (1%) increase in renewable generation in 2021, while electricity generated from coal increased by 19% in the context of high prices for gas.

Until 2010, the increased efficiencies of transformation from fossil fuels to electricity played a role in decreasing carbon intensities, spurred also by the need to comply with emission limit values set under industrial emissions legislation, such as the Large Combustion Plants Directive 2001/80/EC. Since 2010, the decrease has been almost exclusively because of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels in electricity generation, with prices for emission allowances under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme increasing in relevance, especially since 2019.

To reduce EU net greenhouse gases by 55% by 2030 (compared with 1990) and reach carbon neutrality by 2050, electricity generation across the EU needs to decarbonise faster. Figure 1 visualises indicative intensity levels that would be consistent with the EU’s climate targets. Today’s geopolitical context calls for faster decarbonisation to replace gas and coal in power generation, heating and industry. This would substantially reduce electricity prices and improve energy security. To make that happen, additional policies and measures are needed to save energy, significantly improve resource efficiency, step up renewable generation and ensure the optimised and secure use of electricity infrastructures and markets across the European Union.

The GHG intensity of electricity production differs significantly from one Member State to another. In 2021, Poland, Estonia, Cyprus and Bulgaria had the highest electricity generation carbon intensity in the EU. This was the result of using solid fossil fuels and having relatively few renewables and limited, or no, nuclear plants in their national electricity mixes. In six additional Member States, the carbon intensity was higher than the EU average (Czechia, Greece, Malta, Germany, the Netherlands and Ireland). The GHG intensities for electricity production were lowest in Sweden, Luxembourg and France, because of their high share of low-carbon electricity sources (nuclear and renewable power).

Regarding national achievements, the highest rates of decarbonisation in electricity production over the 1990-2021 period were recorded in Luxembourg (89% decrease), Denmark (82%), Malta (78%) and Slovakia (76%). In non-EU EEA countries, all electricity produced in Iceland and most produced in Norway comes from renewable sources, and hence, their GHG emission intensities are very low. Türkiye has a relatively high GHG emission intensity of electricity generation.

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