Mitigating climate change

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
13 min read
Photo: © Keith Arkins/EEA

EU greenhouse gas emissions have been decreasing and are now 19% below 1990 levels. Latest data confirm that the EU is on track to overachieve its 2020 target of a 20% reduction compared to 1990 levels.

The EU aims to decarbonise its energy system and cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050. To achieve this goal, it has set a binding target of reducing emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. Further efforts beyond currently implemented climate and energy policies are required to keep the EU on track towards these objectives.


In 1992, countries adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to cooperatively consider options for limiting average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change.[1] Continuous discussions under the UNFCCC led to the adoption in 1997 of the Kyoto Protocol,[2] which legally binds developed countries to achieving greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets.

In 2010, the international community agreed on the need to reduce emissions in order to prevent global temperature increases from exceeding 2 °C compared to pre-industrial levels[3] (no more than 1.2 °C above today's level). This would require cutting global emissions by 40% to 70% compared to 2010 by 2050.[4]

More than 90 countries agreed to take on mitigation commitments until 2020 including the major developed and developing nations. The European Union (EU) and a handful of other developed countries made their commitments under the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol for a second commitment period running from 2013 to 2020.[5]

The pledges up to 2020 are insufficient to ensure the global temperature rise stays below 2 °C  but they don't preclude meeting this objective.[4][6] To secure the chances to stay below 2 °C, the international community has decided to work towards an international climate agreement for the period after 2020, which should be applicable to all. The negotiation on this new global agreement is expected to be concluded in 2015 in Paris.

In this context of international efforts to limit climate change, the EU is committed to cutting its emissions by 2020 by at least 20% compared to 1990 levels. It has offered to increase the reduction to 30% below 1990 levels, subject to other countries offering similar efforts towards 2020.[7][8] 

These commitments have been backed by concrete policies and measures to reduce GHG emissions in Europe. The EU implemented an Emissions Trading System (ETS) for industrial installations in power generation and manufacturing in 2005[9][10] and strengthened it in 2009 to help the EU achieve its 2020 objectives.[11] Since 2012, the EU ETS also includes aviation.[12] The EU ETS today covers about 45% of EU emissions. In parallel, annual targets have been set for each Member State to reduce emissions in the sectors not covered by the EU ETS.[13] Binding targets are now in place to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars and vans.[14][15] Further efforts also include the promotion of renewable sources of energy,[16][17] measures to improve the efficiency of energy supply and use,[18][19] the regulation of F-gases,[20] etc.

The EU has also articulated a long-term goal for 2050 of reducing Europe's GHG emissions by 80% to 95% compared to 1990 levels.[21][22][23] To ensure that the EU is on a cost-effective track towards meeting this objective, the European Council adopted in 2014 a new set of climate and energy targets for 2030 .[24][25] This includes a binding target of reducing emissions by at least 40% compared to 1990 levels, a target, binding at EU level, of achieving a share of at least 27% for renewable energy consumption, and an indicative target at EU level of at least 27% for improving energy efficiency, compared to projections of future energy consumption.

Key trends

The EU has been reducing its own GHG emissions and its share of global GHGs. The EU has already almost reached its unilateral 20% reduction target, eight years ahead of 2020. Between 1990 and 2012, total GHG emissions in the EU decreased by 18%[26][27] (Figure 1). During this period, the EU's share of global GHG emissions declined from 13% to 10%.[28] In this same period, average per-capita emissions decreased by a quarter, from 11.7 to 9.0 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per capita.[28] The GHG emissions intensity of the EU economy improved substantially, with a 44% decrease of emissions per unit of gross domestic product (GDP).[28][29]

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emission trends, projections and targets

Almost all of the European countries with an individual GHG reduction or limitation target under the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period (2008–2012) are on track towards achieving their respective targets.[30] Besides the additional contribution in most countries of activities enhancing carbon sinks (such as forestry) the use of Kyoto Protocol flexible mechanisms (the purchase of emission reduction credits from other countries) will help ten European countries (including seven Member States)[31] reach their individual target.

During the period from 1990 to 2012, GHG emissions in Europe decreased in the majority of sectors, with the notable exception of transport (Figure 2). The largest absolute reductions were in the emissions from energy use in industrial, residential, and commercial sectors (energy-related emissions represent about 80% of EU GHG emissions). However, significant reductions in relative terms took place in other sectors, such as agriculture and waste management. The largest reductions, which took place in industrial sectors, can be explained by efficiency improvements in restructured iron and steel plants, a reduced reliance on highly-emitting fuels such as coal, and structural changes of the economy toward a higher share of services and a lower share of industry in total GDP.[28]

Figure 2: Greenhouse gases sectoral trends and projections 'with existing measures'

Although GHG emissions trends in the EU were considerably affected by economic or macroeconomic factors during the period from 1990 to 2012, EU and national policies have been playing an increasing role in these decreasing trends.

The economic crisis that the EU encountered during the 2008–2012 period is estimated to have contributed to less than half of the total emission reduction observed during this period. The combined effects of other factors and policies have played at least as important a role in GHG emission reductions as the economic crisis. A significant share of emission reductions during this period was due to climate and energy policies, in particular the increase of renewables in the EU energy mix and the improvement in energy efficiency of the economy.[28]


Aggregated projections from Member States indicate that total EU GHG emissions will further decrease. With the set of national domestic measures in place by mid-2012, EU emissions are expected to reach a level of 21% below 1990 levels by 2020[26][32] and only 22% below 1990 levels by 2030. Implementing the additional measures that were at planning stage in Member States by mid-2012 could help achieve reductions of 24% by 2020 and 28% by 2030 compared to 1990. The EU reference scenario used in the Commission's impact assessment of the 2030 climate and energy policy framework[33] indicates that with current legislation agreed in the EU, total GHG emissions in the EU might be 32% lower in 2030 compared to 1990.

The largest emission reductions in the EU by 2020 are projected to take place in the sectors covered by the EU ETS, where emissions are capped at EU level. Large reductions are expected to come from already-adopted measures supporting renewable energy[20] or aiming at limiting and reducing pollution from large combustion plants.[34] When it comes to non-ETS emissions, most Member States expect that their national targets for the period from 2013 to 2020 will be met through policies or measures already in place.[32] However, in about half of the Member States[35] additional measures will need to be implemented to achieve the targets. In particular, key contributions are expected from energy-efficiency measures targeting the buildings sector.

Full implementation of existing policy instruments is a necessary first step towards further emission reductions in all Member States. However, the anticipated reductions by 2030 remain insufficient compared to the 40% reduction target and the even steeper reduction needed beyond 2030, in order for the EU to remain on a trajectory towards a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy. To achieve the 40% reduction target by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, the ETS sector will have to reduce its emissions by 43% and the non-ETS sector by 30%, compared to 2005, respectively.[24] In the EU ETS, further reductions will be driven through strengthened emission caps. Outside the ETS, new policies and measures remain necessary to address emissions in sectors for which projected trends remain problematic, in particular in the transport sector.

Fulfilling Europe's long-term objectives could be achieved through fundamental changes in our energy and transport systems, in particular by further improving their efficiency and by ensuring coherent planning and infrastructure on various governance levels. However, becoming more resource efficient will not be sufficient on its own to achieve Europe's long-term objectives, for example if the volume of transport continues to grow or if we keep increasing the number of domestic appliances. After all, we could become more efficient but still put excessive demands on the environment. For that reason, in order to achieve sustainability we also need to focus on the limits of natural systems.

References and footnotes

[1] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations (9 May 1992) New York, accessed 3 July 2014.

[2] Kyoto Protocol, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, accessed 3 July 2014.

[3] Decision 1/CP.16: The Cancun Agreements: Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention, accessed 3 July 2014.

[4] IPCC (2014): Summary for Policymakers, In: Climate Change 2014, Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer, O., R. Pichs-Madruga, Y. Sokona, E. Farahani, S. Kadner, K. Seyboth, A. Adler, I. Baum, S. Brunner, P. Eickemeier, B. Kriemann, J. Savolainen, S. Schlömer, C. von Stechow, T. Zwickel and J.C. Minx (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, accessed 3 July 2014.

[5] Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, Doha (8 December 2012), accessed 27 August 2014. 

[6] UNEP (2014), The Emissions Gap Report 2014, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi, accessed 29 January 2015.

[7] As part of a global and comprehensive agreement for the period beyond 2012, the EU has been reiterating its conditional offer to move to a 30% reduction by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, provided that other developed countries commit themselves to comparable emission reductions and that developing countries contribute adequately according to their responsibilities and respective capabilities.

[8] Presidency Conclusions of the Brussels European Council (8/9 March 2007), accessed 3 July 2014.

[9] The EU ETS covers about 40% of EU greenhouse gas emissions.

[10] Directive 2003/87/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 October 2003 establishing a scheme for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Community and amending Council Directive 96/61/EC (OJ L 275, 25.10.2003, pp. 32–46), accessed 3 July 2014.

[11] Directive 2009/29/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 amending Directive 2003/87/EC so as to improve and extend the greenhouse gas emission allowance trading scheme of the Community (OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, pp. 63–87), accessed 3 July 2014.

[12] Regulation (EU) No 421/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 amending Directive 2003/87/EC establishing a scheme for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Community, in view of the implementation by 2020 of an international agreement applying a single global market-based measure to international aviation emissions (OJ L 129, 30.4.2014, pp. 1–4), accessed 27 August 2014.

[13] Decision No 406/2009/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the effort of Member States to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Community's greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments up to 2020 (OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, pp. 136–148), accessed 3 July 2014.

[14] Regulation (EU) No 333/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 March 2014 amending Regulation (EC) No 443/2009 to define the modalities for reaching the 2020 target to reduce CO2 emissions from new passenger cars (OJ L 103, 5.4.2014, pp. 15–21), accessed 3 July 2014.

[15] Regulation (EU) NO 253/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU) No 510/2011 to define the modalities for reaching the 2020 target to reduce CO2 emissions from new light commercial vehicles (OJ L 84, 20.3.2014, pp. 38–41), accessed 3 July 2014.

[16] Directive 2001/77/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 September 2001 on the promotion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources in the internal electricity market (OJ L 283, 27.10.2001, pp. 33–40), accessed 3 July 2014.

[17] Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources and amending and subsequently repealing Directives 2001/77/EC and 2003/30/EC (OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, pp. 16–62), accessed 3 July 2014.

[18] Directive 2004/8/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 February 2004 on the promotion of co-generation based on a useful heat demand in the internal energy market and amending Directive 92/42/EEC (OJ L 52, 21.2.2004, pp. 50–60), accessed 3 July 2014.

[19] Directive 2010/31/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 May 2010 on the energy performance of buildings (OJ L 153, 18.6.2010, pp. 13–35), accessed 3 July 2014.

[20] Regulation (EU) No 517/2014 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 April 2014 on fluorinated greenhouse gases and repealing Regulation (EC) No 842/2006 (OJ L 150, 20.5.2014, pp. 195–230), accessed 27 August 2014.

[21] Presidency Conclusions of the Brussels European Council (29/30 October 2009), accessed 3 July 2014.

[22] Council conclusions on Climate change and development of the 2974th External Relations Council meeting, Brussels (17 November 2009), accessed 3 July 2014.

[23] A roadmap for moving to a low-carbon economy in 2050, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, COM(2011) 112 final, accessed 27 August 2014.

[24] A policy framework for climate and energy in the period from 2020 to 2030, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, COM(2014)015 final, accessed 3 July 2014.

[25] European Council (23 and 24 October 2014), conclusions, accessed 26 October 2014.

[26] This includes emissions from international aviation but does not include emissions and removals from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF), in line with the scope of the EU unilateral 20% reduction target by 2020. The decrease is 19% when emissions from international aviation are excluded.

[27] EEA (2014), Annual European Community greenhouse gas inventory 1990–2012 and inventory report 2014, EEA Technical report No 9/2014, European Environment Agency, accessed 3 June 2014.

[28] EEA (2014), Why did GHG emissions decrease in the EU between 1990 and 2012?, European Environment Agency, accessed 3 June 2014.

[29] GDP increased by 45% while emissions (excluding international aviation) decreased by 19%.

[30] EEA (2014), Progress towards 2008–2012 Kyoto targets in Europe, EEA Technical report No 18/2014, European Environment Agency.

[31] These countries are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

[32] 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, accessed 27 October 2014.

[33] Capros, P. et al. (2014), EU energy, transport and GHG emissions: trends to 2050, reference scenario 2013, Publications office of the European Union, Luxembourg, accessed 9 April 2014.

[34] Directive 2010/75/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 24 November 2010 on industrial emissions (integrated pollution prevention and control) (OJ L 334, 17.12.2010, pp. 17–119), accessed 3 July 2014.

[35] These Member States are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.

[36] Forest Europe, Unece, FAO (2011), State of Europe's Forests 2011. Status and Trends in Sustainable Forest Management in Europe, 337 pp., accessed 3 July 2014.


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