Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty vehicles in Europe

Briefing Published 07 Sep 2022 Last modified 26 Apr 2023
13 min read
Photo: © Zsuzsanna Rózsa, My City EEA
Heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for approximately a quarter of CO2 emissions from road transport in the EU. Emissions in this sector have increased every year since 2014, dropping only in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For trucks, the primary cause of this trend is a growing demand for freight transport. It is partly offset by the improved energy efficiency of road freight transport. To contribute to the goal of a climate-neutral EU, a combination of changes is needed, including faster improvements in energy efficiency, a shift to vehicles with lower emissions and/or more efficient transport modes.

Key messages

  • Even though EU greenhouse gas emissions decreased continuously over the last decade, CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles increased every year since 2014, dropping only in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While the efficiency of heavy-duty vehicle transport (vehicles and logistics) has improved, it has not reduced total greenhouse gas emissions. This is because increases in demand for freight transport have outpaced efficiency gains.
  • Improving the efficiency of vehicle and fuel technologies is key to reducing overall emissions. The EU has introduced emission performance standards for large trucks. EEA data on vehicle performance is critical to tracking the fuel efficiency and carbon intensity of the EU heavy-duty vehicle fleet.
  • Shifting transport activity to more efficient modes, e.g. from trucks to rail freight, or from cars to buses, rail, trams and metro, can also have an impact on total emissions. However, recent trends reveal a departure from this strategy. The share of cars used for land-based passenger transport and the share of trucks used for inland freight transport have grown, thus increasing the total negative impact of the transport sector on the climate.
  • The main factor behind the uptick in CO2 emissions is transport demand. While transport efficiency has improved, this has not been sufficient to counteract increased demand. Cutting the number of trips or their length is another way to reduce emissions. In the coming decades, it is important that demand management measures supplement other solutions. 

The European Green Deal aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Meeting this goal will require large-scale changes in the transport sector, which comprises approximately a quarter of EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A 90% reduction in GHG emissions from transport will be needed to attain climate neutrality, and every part of the sector will have to contribute to the reduction.

Heavy-duty vehicles are road vehicles used to transport goods or passengers that are designed to carry heavy loads or many passengers. They include trucks heavier than 3.5 tonnes (laden) as well as buses and coaches, defined as passenger vehicles with more than eight seats.

So far, the sector has proven challenging to decarbonise. GHG emissions from the EU  transport sector have not followed the  general downward trend in EU emissions (EEA, 2021a). The EU and Member States have taken or planned to take a number of actions, and these need to be consistently implemented and strengthened to ensure that the trend is reversed. 

This briefing focuses on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs). Road transport is the largest contributor to transport emissions in the EU, and HDVs are responsible for around a quarter of EU road transport emissions. CO2 is the main greenhouse gas emitted by the road transport sector, accounting for nearly 99% of all GHG emissions. Therefore, it is relevant to assess trends in HDV CO2 emissions and prospects for HDVs contributing to the achievement of the European Green Deal objectives.

CO2 emissions from HDVs are increasing

Similar to other segments of the transport sector, HDV emissions have not decreased compared to 1990. Despite a decline following the 2008 financial crisis, annual CO2 emissions increased by 29% between 1990 and 2019. In fact, CO2 emissions from HDVs in the EU have increased every year since 2014 (Figure 1). The dynamics of the growth in emissions have varied among the Member States, with some experiencing much sharper increases compared with the EU average over the given period. In 2020, these emissions decreased because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the drop was not due to systemic changes in the sector, it is expected that it will rebound.

Figure 1. Trends in CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles in the EU, 1990-2020



Notes: The figure shows the trend in the CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles since 1990, at EU level (EU-27). Heavy-duty vehicles are denoted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) category 1.A.3.b.iii. Heavy-duty trucks and buses. For comparison, emissions for ‘Total transport’ and ‘All sectors’ are shown. ‘Total transport’ corresponds to IPPC category 1.A.3. ‘All sectors’ includes all domestic EU emissions.
Source: EEA (2022a).
Click here for different chart formats and data

Among the various categories of HDVs, trucks are responsible for about 85% of emissions, while buses and coaches are responsible for the remainder. Different types of policies contribute to reducing CO2 emissions from HDVs. At the EU level, the key policies are the Effort Sharing Legislation, the EU Emissions Trading System (proposed extension of emissions trading to road transport) and the Energy Efficiency Directive. Fuels in the transport sector are addressed by the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive. Vehicles are targeted by CO2 emissions standards that are complemented by the Car Labelling Directive, the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive (proposed to become a regulation) and the Clean Vehicles Directive.

At the Member State level, concrete instruments discussed and planned include constructing electric road systems, such as a CO2 component in the tolls for trucks, improving rail infrastructure (Umweltbundesamt, 2022), and incentivising zero emission urban transport through electric and hydrogen buses (Centre for Climate and Energy Analyses, 2022). 

Transport demand is the main driver behind trends in truck emissions 

A recent EEA report reviewed the progress and future perspective of decarbonisation in the road transport sector (EEA, 2022b). To explore the factors driving the trends in GHG emissions from road transport over time, a decomposition analysis was conducted for truck emissions in the EU Member States (EU-27). The analysis considered the following possible factors as drivers of emission trends: 

  • freight transport demand;
  • the modal share of trucks in inland freight transport demand;
  • the energy efficiency of trucks;
  • the share of fossil fuels in truck fuel consumption, with biofuels assumed to be carbon neutral;
  • the carbon intensity of fossil fuels consumed by trucks 

Figure 2 depicts the relative importance of the different factors driving total CO2 emissions from trucks and their development between 2000 and 2019.

Figure 2. Decomposition analysis of the CO2 emissions from trucks in the EU-27, 2000-2019 — percentage contribution of various factors


Note: CO2 emissions: expressed as percentage change compared with the year 2000.
Driving factors: expressed as percentage contribution of driving factors to percentage change in CO2 emissions from trucks.
Source: EEA (2022b).
Click here for different chart formats and data

CO2 emissions from trucks were 5.5% higher in 2019 than in 2000. The period is marked by several years of reductions in emissions following the economic crisis. However, this did not have a lasting effect and emissions started rising again. Freight demand is a key factor contributing to these trends. The total demand for inland freight transport increased by nearly 25% in the period 2000-2019. Cycles of emission increases and decreases are closely linked to trends in demand.

In the EU context, the causes of the increased demand are diverse. They include the transport intensity of the economy, the fact that mobility patterns are at different stages of development across the EU, and that economic growth has contributed to reduced inequality among the EU Member States.

In 2019, trucks also carried relatively more goods than other transport modes compared to 2000. More specifically, while transport activity in the EU’s inland waterways and railways increased by 5% between 2000 and 2019, truck transport rose by 31% during the same period. Because of these trends, the share of freight transported by trucks increased from 72% in 2000 to 76.4% in 2019, while the share of rail and inland waterway activity decreased. 

The increase in overall demand for freight, and the share of trucks in meeting that demand, are the main factors in increasing emissions from trucks. The increase has been limited during periods of demand growth through improvements in the energy efficiency of freight operations. The energy consumption per tonne-kilometre transported decreased by almost 15% between 2000 and 2019, which limited overall emissions. 

The improved efficiency of individual vehicles is likely to have played a role in this development. International trucks drive long distances, and fuel cost is a significant part of total cost. Therefore, freight firms have a strong incentive to improve fuel efficiency. In addition, some of the reduced fuel consumption per tonne-kilometre can be explained by improvements in freight operations, such as improving logistics so that vehicles can carry larger loads.

Another factor which appears to contribute to limiting increases in CO2 emissions is the wider adoption of biomass fuels, which are considered carbon neutral in the emissions inventory. However, the feedstock used to produce biofuels is decisive, as it can negatively influence emissions reduction, thus impacting the use of biofuels as a solution. For example, indirect land use change that can result from growing crops for biofuels can potentially diminish emissions reduction.

A similar analysis for passenger cars indicates that modal shifts to other transport modes, such as rail, buses and coaches, has not occurred in the last two decades. Rather, the share of passenger-kilometres travelled by cars has increased.

To ensure that the trend in road transport emissions is reversed, a combination of ‘avoid’, ‘shift’ and ‘improve’ (ASI) strategies will be necessary. ‘Avoid’ strategies are directed towards reducing the number of trips and their length (i.e., addressing demand). ‘Shift’ strategies aim to shift transport activity to more efficient modes, while ‘improve’ strategies are about improving vehicle and fuel technologies to make them more efficient.

In the coming decades, more zero-emission vehicles will be on the roads, and existing vehicles will need to become more carbon and energy efficient. To ensure a faster and more complete transition, a shift to transport modes with lower emissions will be important. The EU will also need to move towards greater sustainability in other areas of the economy, including targeting transport demand directly or via incentives in other areas, such as local production and circular economy initiatives. 

Move to more efficient transport modes — the essential ingredient in reducing emissions 

One of the means to reduce GHG emissions from transport is to shift to transport modes with the lowest emission. In the case of HDVs, the role played in the wider transport system is different for passenger and freight transport.

For freight transport, carrying cargo by road (using trucks) has significantly lower GHG emissions than air cargo. However, road freight emits significantly more GHG than transporting goods by either rail or ship (Figure 3, left). Hence, finding ways to transport freight by rail or ship instead of by road could contribute to the goal of reducing transport emissions.

For passenger transport, cars have the highest emissions per passenger-kilometre, together with aviation, while public transport modes (rail, buses, coaches) are more efficient (Figure 3, right). Thus, shifting from cars or planes to public transport modes, such as buses and coaches or rail, can help reduce GHG emissions from passenger transport. While shifting from cars to buses or coaches would increase the demand for (and emissions from) HDVs, it would result in a decrease in overall transport emissions. In turn, buses, especially those used in urban transport, can be made less carbon intensive, by for example, switching to zero-emission buses.

Figure 3. Greenhouse gas emission efficiency of different transport modes for freight (left) and passenger (right)


Notes: The unit used for freight efficiency is tonne-kilometre, defined as moving a 1 tonne payload over 1 kilometre. The unit used for passenger transport efficiency is passenger-kilometre, which means moving one passenger over 1 kilometre. Scope: the well-to-wheel GHG emissions of different motorised passenger and freight transport modes.

For both passenger and freight transport, the GHG emission savings obtained by a modal shift depend on the occupancy rate/load factor of the vehicle and the vehicle technologies being compared. The comparison in this figure is based on technologies that were used in the period considered and on average occupancy rates and load factors. The occupancy rates of the passenger modes can vary widely according to the time of day or the route taken, and, for freight transport, also the load factor.
Source: EEA (2021b).
Click here for different chart formats and data

The decomposition analysis described above reveals that, over the last 20 years, the modal share of cars in land-based passenger transport and the modal share of trucks in inland freight transport have grown, thus increasing the impact of the transport sector on climate change. As there are large differences in the emissions intensity of different modes for both passenger and freight transport, there is a broad capacity for saving GHG emissions through a potential shift.

Potential role of vehicle efficiency in reducing emissions from trucks

The energy efficiency of road freight plays a role in emissions trends. It has already been important in limiting the increases in emissions during periods of growth in demand. Improving the energy and emissions efficiency of vehicles is likely to play a greater role in future. Moving towards alternatively powered vehicles and using new technologies can be a powerful tool to complement the modal shift in decreasing emissions from HDVs.

The EU aims to ensure that road transport contributes to the EU’s 2050 goal of carbon neutrality by incentivising manufacturers to ensure that new vehicles sold in the EU become more efficient. Regulations mandating targets for the CO2 emission performance of new passenger cars and of vans have been in place since 2009 and 2011, respectively. To complement these regulations and to address emissions from HDVs, the EU has introduced CO2 emission standards for new HDVs.

Figure 4. Targets for reducing the CO2 emissions of large trucks



These standards require that the average CO2 emissions of the EU fleet of certain types of new HDVs are reduced by 15% from 2025 onwards and by 30% from 2030 onwards (Figure 4). Both targets are determined relative to the reference CO2 emissions calculated from 2019/2020 data. Currently, the emission performance standards cover large trucks. In 2022, the Commission will review the effectiveness of the targets and incentives and consider proposing an extension of the targets to other vehicle types, such as buses, coaches, trailers and smaller trucks, and introducing binding targets for 2035 and 2040.

Currently, most trucks are powered by diesel. To reduce emissions and meet targets, trucks will be increasingly powered by alternative means in future. More will be powered by electric batteries or fuel cells (hydrogen). Countries can facilitate the uptake of such vehicles by providing refuelling infrastructure and suitable incentives. Electric road systems are also being considered in some countries as a potential measure to facilitate the uptake of hybrid trucks. In the reference period 2019/2020, only a handful of electric and hybrid trucks were registered in the EU.

Since 2020, the data used to track progress towards these new targets is being collected by the EEA on an annual basis. The data collected in the first two reporting periods is available online (EEA, 2021c).


Find out more



Centre for Climate and Energy Analyses, 2022, Poland net-zero 2050: the role of public transport in the context of the ‘Fit for 55’ package to 2050, English summary
( accessed 16 August 2022.

EEA, 2021a, ‘Greenhouse gas emissions from transport in Europe’, EEA indicator
( accessed 16 August 2022.

EEA, 2021b, ‘Rail and waterborne — best for low-carbon motorised transport’, EEA briefing
( accessed 16 August 2022.

EEA, 2021c, ‘Monitoring of CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles’, EEA data ( accessed 16 August 2022.

EEA, 2022a, ‘National emissions reported to the UNFCCC and to the EU Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Mechanism’, EEA data ( accessed 16 August 2022.

EEA, 2022b, Transport and environment report 2021. Decarbonising road transport — the role of vehicles, fuel and transport demand, EEA Report No 2/2022 ( accessed 16 August 2022.

Umweltbundesamt, 2022, ‘Klimaschutz im Verkehr’ ( accessed 16 August 2022. 



EEA Briefing No 15/2022
Title: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heavy-duty vehicles in Europe

HTML: TH-AM-22-017-EN-Q - ISBN: 978-92-9480-498-3 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/220939

PDF: TH-AM-22-017-EN-N - ISBN: 978-92-9480-497-6 - ISSN: 2467-3196 - doi: 10.2800/066953

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