Mitigating climate change — greenhouse gas emissions

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
7 min read
Photo: © Cristian Botea/EEA

Almost all European countries with an individual greenhouse gas limitation or reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol are on track towards achieving their  targets.

The majority of European Union Member States expect to meet their individual emission targets for the non-trading sectors under the Effort Sharing Decision. However, for 14 countries, additional measures are needed to bring emissions below the annual targets from 2013 to 2020.

Setting the scene

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. The warming of the climate system is happening with differing impacts and vulnerabilities for nature, the economy and human well-being across Europe.

In order to prevent the most severe impacts of climate change, countries (referred to as 'Parties') having signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to limit the increase in global mean temperature relative to pre-industrial times to less than 2 °C. In order to achieve this goal, countries need to take actions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, known as mitigation actions, and at the same time respond to the occurring and projected impacts of climate change through adaptation actions. 

The SOER 2015 briefing on mitigating climate change provides an overview of the status, trends and prospects at a European level, while adaption actions are described in the SOER 2015 briefing on climate change impacts and adaptation. This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on trends in GHG emissions.

About the indicator

The indicator 'total greenhouse gas emission trends and projections' presents trends of anthropogenic GHG emissions in Europe between 1990 and 2013 and projected emissions between 2010 and 2030. It also assesses the progress of the EU, individual Member States and other EEA countries towards their GHG targets. The GHG emissions presented comprise the six GHGs weighted by their respective global warming potential and presented in CO2-equivalent units (see [1] for details).

Emissions from international bunkers (international aviation and maritime transport) and land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) are not included in total national GHG emissions.

Policies, targets and progress

European countries have a range of collective and individual targets under different policy processes. They joined the UNFCCC and ratified the Kyoto Protocol both as a whole (in the case of the first 15 EU Member States) and as individual parties. Under the Kyoto Protocol, they must achieve legally binding GHG limitation and emission reduction targets for the first and second commitment periods, 2008 to 2012 and 2013 to 2020 respectively.

To achieve their Kyoto targets, countries must keep their emissions within a certain budget by balancing emissions with the amount of Kyoto units determined by their target. Such a balance is primarily reached by limiting or reducing domestic emissions and enhancing carbon sinks through the contribution of activities, such as forest management. They can also increase their emission budgets through the use of flexible mechanisms whereby they can acquire Kyoto units from other countries. All EEA member countries except Cyprus, Malta and Turkey have Kyoto Protocol targets for the period 2008 to 2012.

The European Union (EU) aims to cut its GHG emissions by 80–95% below 1990 levels by 2050 in the context of necessary reductions by developed countries as a group. The EU has adopted a target to reduce GHG emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020. To achieve this target (one of the main targets under the Europe 2020 Strategy) a cap for the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) was set at EU level, and individual national targets for emissions in sectors not covered by the ETS were set under the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD).

Many factors influence GHG emissions, such as changes in energy demand and fuel use, growth in particular economic sectors, increasing transport demand and shifts in transport modes, technological developments, low carbon energy sources, energy efficiency policies, and demographic changes.

The EEA has been publishing an annual assessment of progress by European countries towards achieving their climate mitigation policy objectives.[2] Climate and energy profiles have been developed for each member country, providing information on key GHG data, total and sectoral GHG trends and projections, and progress towards the 20082012 Kyoto targets and annual Effort Sharing Decision targets (where applicable).[3] The profiles also provide information on national targets, policies and measures. The EEA greenhouse gas data viewer provides easy access to data, and can show emission trends for the main sectors and allow for comparison between different countries and activities.[4]

In 2012, the EEA countries with the highest GHG emissions were Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, and those with the smallest GHG emissions were Liechtenstein, Malta and Iceland. Total GHG emissions for the EEA-33 declined by 14% between 1990 and 2012. However, national trends varied significantly, with GHG emissions declining in 22 countries and rising in 11 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percentage change in total greenhouse gas emissions in EEA countries (19902012)

The largest absolute reductions between 1990 and 2012 were recorded in Germany, the United Kingdom and Romania, with the largest increases recorded in Turkey, Spain and Portugal. The largest relative reductions were recorded in Latvia (–58%), Lithuania (–56%), Estonia and Romania (–53%), with the largest relative increases recorded in Turkey (133%), Malta (58%) and Cyprus (52%).

In 2012, the countries with the highest per capita GHG emissions were Luxembourg, Estonia and Iceland, and those with the smallest were Latvia, Turkey and Romania (Figure 2). GHG emissions per capita for the EEA-33 declined by 22% between 1990 and 2012. However, national trends varied, with a decline in 26 countries, no change in 3, and a rise in 4. The largest reductions between 1990 and 2012 were recorded in Lithuania, Latvia and Romania, with the largest increases recorded in Turkey, Malta and Portugal.

Figure 2: Greenhouse gas emissions per capita in EEA countries (1990, 2000 and 2012)

Almost all European countries with an individual GHG limitation or reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol have already achieved their respective targets for the first commitment period 20082012, taking into account the contribution of carbon sink enhancing activities, such as forestry. The purchase of emission reduction credits will help 12 European countries reach their individual target (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland).


EU Member States also have national annual targets for the period 2013 to 2020 under the ESD. Projected progress towards meeting the 2013 and 2020 targets is shown in Figure 3. This assessment is based on a comparison between the latest historic trends, relevant target paths (i.e. annual GHG emission targets 20132020 under the ESD), and projections reported by countries. A description of the data and methodology is provided in [2].

Figure 3: Progress towards 2013 and 2020 targets for EU Member States under the Effort Sharing Decision

 The majority of Member States expect that their individual emission targets for the non-trading sectors (under the ESD) will be met through those policy measures already in place. However, for 13 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain), current projections indicate that 2020 emissions will not be below their respective 2020 targets. Further efforts to design, adopt and implement emission-reducing policies and measures are likely to be needed along with consideration of the use of flexibility mechanisms.

Achieving the 80–95% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 will be challenging, and anticipated reductions by European countries are still largely insufficient when compared to the just adopted 40% reduction by 2030. These figures represent what is emitted within a country's territory, calculated according to international guidelines under the UNFCCC. Countries' contributions to global emissions could be greater if imports of goods and services and their embodied emissions are taken into account.

Climate change has the potential to further exacerbate a range of other environmental, economic and societal problems. Addressing this requires full implementation of existing policy instruments. In addition, there are gains to be made in taking an integrated approach to climate and other policy areas, and this is reflected in the many national debates on how to achieve the transition towards a low-carbon and resource-efficient future. Taking an integrated approach enables the identification of measures that provide an adequate response to the climate change challenge while also aiming to sustain natural capital and ecosystem services.

Countries' perspectives

References and footnotes

[1] EEA (2014), Total greenhouse gas (GHG) emission trends and projections (CSI 010/CLIM 050) — Assessment published November 2014', accessed 28 November 2014.

[2] EEA (2014), Trends and projections in Europe 2014. Tracking progress towards Europe's climate and energy targets until 2020, EEA Report No 6/2014, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

[3] EEA (2013), Climate and energy country profiles — Key facts and figures for EEA member countries, EEA Technical report No 17/2013, Copenhagen.

[4] EEA (2014), EEA greenhouse gas — data viewer — European Environment Agency (EEA), accessed 18 March 2014.




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