Greenhouse gas emission intensity of electricity generation in Europe

The greenhouse gas emission intensity of power generation in the EU has been continuously decreasing over the last three decades: generating 1 kilowatt hour in 2020 emitted, on average, half as much CO2 as in 1990. Policies have been playing an important role in driving this shift towards less carbon-intensive energy sources, in particular those addressing climate change, renewable energy supply and efficient energy use, and industrial emissions. The Covid-19 pandemic hardly affected electricity use in 2020, but the continued growth of renewable electricity caused a further drop in the greenhouse gas emission intensity of electricity generation.

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 2020, the sector was 54% less GHG intensive than in 1990 and 9% less than in 2019, according to preliminary estimates. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a significant disturbance to society throughout 2020. The resulting crisis led to a strong reduction in economic activity across most sectors, especially transport, and demanded changes to everyday life. Despite that, electricity generation and use dropped by just 4%, compared with 2019. Improvements in the GHG emission intensity of the sector thus occurred against the backdrop of a 9% increase in renewable energy generation in 2020, while energy generated from non-renewable sources also declined in the context of robust carbon price signals coming from the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

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 Emission Trading Scheme increasing in relevance, especially since 2019.

If the observed trend were to continue, electricity generation could be fully decarbonised in the EU by around 2050. Such a decrease would be consistent with the EU’s target to reduce net greenhouse gases by 55% in 2030 (compared with 1990) and to reach carbon neutrality in 2050. To make that happen, additional policies and measures are needed to significantly improve resource and energy efficiency and to step up the deployment of renewable energy technologies.

The GHG intensity of electricity production differs significantly from one Member State to the other. In 2020, Estonia, Poland, Cyprus and Greece had the highest electricity generation carbon intensity in the EU. This was the result of using solid fossil fuels and having relatively fewer renewables and limited, or no, nuclear plants in their national electricity mixes. In seven additional Member States, the carbon intensity was higher than the EU average (Czechia, Bulgaria, Malta, the Netherlands, Germany, Romania and Ireland). The GHG intensities for electricity production were lowest in Sweden, France and Lithuania, due to 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 1990-2020 period were recorded in Luxembourg (86% decrease), Denmark (84% decrease), Slovakia (78% decrease) and Malta and France (76% decrease). 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. Turkey has a relatively high GHG emission intensity of electricity generation, whereas for the UK it is close to the EU-27 average. For these countries, however, no early estimates were available in time for this indicator.

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