4. Progress of the European Union towards its renewable energy targets

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  • The EU is currently on track to meet its renewable energy target, i.e. that 20 % of its energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. The share of energy from renewable sources in the EU's gross final energy consumption reached 16.7 % in 2015 and thus exceeded the level of the indicative trajectory set out in the RED.
  • This good progress at the EU level is confirmed by preliminary estimates from the EEA, which show that renewable energy use in the EU is expected to increase to 16.9 % of gross final energy consumption in 2016.
  • As regards the consumption of renewable energy in the transport sector, the EU reached a share of 6.7 % in 2015 (and 7.1 % in 2016, according to EEA preliminary estimates). This indicates that insufficient progress has been achieved so far towards the 10 % target set for the transport sector for 2020.
  • If renewable energy use, as a proportion of gross final energy consumption, continues to grow at the same pace until 2030, the EU will exceed the 27 % minimum target for 2030. However, this may not happen without additional efforts, because a number of regulatory changes have already affected investors' confidence in renewables, one example being the retroactive cuts to feed-in tariffs. Other challenges for renewable energy progress include the outdated structure of the electricity market, which prevents consumers and other players from participating actively in the market, persistent barriers for cross-border trade of RES, and the need to expand the grid infrastructure to accommodate a growing share of decentralised RES.
  • In view of the EU's longer term energy and decarbonisation objectives for 2050, the deployment of RES by the EU will need to accelerate.

4.1 Current progress on renewable energy

The EU is currently on track to meet its target of reaching, by 2020, a 20 % share of renewable energy in its gross final energy consumption [1]. In 2015, the use of RES in the EU, as a proportion of gross final energy consumption, continued its steady growth, standing at 16.7 % of gross final energy consumption. This is an increase of 0.5 percentage points from the previous year. According to preliminary estimates from the EEA, the share of energy from renewable sources in the EU's gross final consumption of energy continued to increase in 2016, and is expected to reach a level of 16.9 %.

The RED sets binding national targets for 2020 for all Member States (EU, 2009d). These national targets, ranging from 10 % for Malta to 49 % for Sweden, reflect differing national circumstances and starting points. To ensure that these 2020 targets are achieved, the RED also sets indicative trajectories for the period between 2011 and 2020. Member States may reach their indicative RED targets domestically (by establishing adequate RES support measures) and through cooperation with other countries (between local, regional and national authorities, planned statistical transfers or joint projects [2]).

The RES share of 16.7 % achieved by the EU in 2015 exceeds the average EU share for the two consecutive years 2015 and 2016, in accordance with the indicative trajectory provided in the RED (13.8 %).

Preliminary estimates by the EEA indicate that the EU achieved, on average, a 16.8 % RES share over the 2-year period from 2015 to 2016, exceeding the average share of its indicative trajectory.

The RES share of 16.7 % in 2015 is higher than the aggregate ambition levels that Member States had planned to achieve by 2015 and 2016 (15.3 % and 16.1 %, respectively), according to the roadmaps reported in their 2010 NREAPs and assessed by the EEA (EEA, 2017i).

Between 2005 and 2015, the use of energy from renewable sources, as a proportion of gross final energy consumption, increased on average by 0.8 percentage points every year. This steady increase reflects a combination of two trends:

  • dynamic developments in the use of renewable energy (in absolute terms); together with
  • a decrease in final energy consumption.

While the consumption of renewable energy grew by almost 70 % between 2005 and 2015, total final energy consumption decreased by 9 % during the same period (see Figure 4.1).

Between 2014 and 2015, the consumption of renewable energy increased by 10 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) (from 177 Mtoe to 187 Mtoe). The 16 % decrease in the gross final energy consumption of non-renewable sources between 2005 and 2015 clearly indicates a progressive substitution of fossil fuels by renewables. Yet between 2014 and 2015, the consumption of non-renewable sources as well as total final energy consumption increased from 921 Mtoe to 935 Mtoe, and from 1 098 to 1 122 Mtoe respectively. Thus, the overall trend to reduce energy consumption shifted in 2015, as in absolute terms the consumption of fossil fuels increased by more than that of RES.

Figure 4.1 Gross final energy consumption from renewable and non-renewable energy sources, 2005-2016

Notes: Eurostat calculates the shares of renewable energy source (RES) consumption, and as part of this process normalises wind power and hydroelectricity generation, which are part of the RES share numerator. However, the total consumption of electricity included in the denominator is not normalised. In the figure above, non-normalised gross final energy consumption is displayed together with shares of RES consumption in which the numerator has been normalised.

Sources: EEA, 2017k; EU, 2009d; Eurostat, 2017d.

4.2 Projected progress in the deployment of renewable energy sources

If the average annual percentage point increase in the RES share observed between 2005 and 2015 is maintained until 2020, the EU will achieve its 2020 target. This, however, may prove challenging, because a number of complex factors are at play, with uncertain outcomes. This includes the outdated structure of the electricity market, which prevents certain market players and consumers from participating actively in the market, the sub-optimal use of cross-border opportunities, and the slow expansion of the grid infrastructure, which at times prevents contributions from a growing share of centralised and decentralised RES. Together with changes in national RES supporting policies over past years, these factors may have caused some investors to hold back. At the same time, costs for new RES capacity are being reduced through economies of scale, better knowledge integration and increasing experience.

According to their 2010 action plans and the subsequent biennial progress reports [3], Member States plan to increase the share of energy from renewable sources at EU level to approximately 21 % by 2020, as analysed by the EEA (2017i). However, not all Member States reported RES projections, or specified the status of the policies and measures (e.g. existing or planned) on which their projections were based. This makes it difficult to use the RES projections to assess progress towards RES targets for all Member States in a consistent manner, as is done for GHG emissions.

The European Commission made a proposal for a revised RED (RED II) in December 2016, confirming the objective of increasing the EU-wide share of RES consumption to a minimum of 27 % by 2030 (EC, 2016f). Negotiations on the RED II proposal are still ongoing. At this point, current national documents offer limited information regarding the continuation of efforts envisaged by countries after 2020. Currently, a proposal for a governance framework for the Energy Union is being negotiated with Member States (EC, 2016h). The framework will require Member States to draft national integrated energy and climate plans, and to submit new information on their envisaged efforts post-2020, but not before 2019, when national integrated energy and climate plans should be finalised.

Beyond 2030, the EU has no quantified target for renewable energy. However, to achieve the goal of reducing EU-wide GHG emissions by 80-95 % compared with 1990 levels by 2050, the EU-wide share of RES will need to increase significantly, to levels between 55 % and 75 % of gross final energy consumption (see Figure 4.2), in accordance with the decarbonisation scenarios presented in the European Commission's communicationEnergy Roadmap 2050(EC, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). Achieving such a high proportion of RES consumption calls for considerably higher efforts post 2030, as the required growth rates of RES would have to be up to three times higher than the rates achieved between 2005 and 2015. A higher penetration of renewables in the EU energy supply before 2030 would balance the pace of growth required before 2050, but, for this purpose, further policy efforts and investments would be required in the short term.

In particular, the transport sector represents a challenge due to its significant reliance on fossil fuel-based technologies and infrastructure. Progress in increasing the use of renewable energy consumption in this sector has been relatively limited in the EU to date, with consequences for the sector's GHG emissions.

Figure 4.2 Share of energy from renewable energy sources (RES) in the EU's gross final energy consumption, 2005-2050

Sources: EC, 2011b, 2011c, 2013b, 2013c; EEA, 2017k; EU, 2009d; Eurostat, 2017d.

4.3 The development of renewable energy for electricity, heating and cooling, and transport

RES are used in power generation, for heating and cooling, and in the transport sector. In addition to the overall 20 % target for renewable energy use in all sectors by 2020, a 10 % target must be achieved in the transport sector at EU level and by all Member States, in accordance with the RED. However, progress in this sector is much slower compared with overall RES growth rates for all sectors.

Between 2005 and 2015, with regard to electricity consumed in the EU, the RES share grew at an average of 1.4 percentage points per year. In 2015, about 29 % of the electricity consumed in the EU was generated from renewables, with the most important sources being hydropower, wind, solar energy and solid biofuels (EEA, 2017j). About 42 % of renewable electricity came from variable sources such as wind and solar power (Eurostat, 2017d). For 2016, the EEA's approximated estimates indicate that about 30 % of total electricity consumed was derived from RES, with more than 44 % of this share from wind and solar power (EEA, 2017k).

In the EU heating and cooling sector, the RES share grew by 0.8 percentage points per year, on average, between 2005 and 2015. The most important sources for renewable heating and cooling throughout the EU are solid biomass, heat pumps and biogas, followed by solar thermal collectors (EEA, 2017, 2017j). The share of energy from renewable sources used in this sector amounted to 18.6 % in 2015, and was estimated to remain constant in 2016 (EEA 2017j). Heating from renewable sources is increasingly being used as a cost-efficient and secure alternative to fossil fuels (mainly natural gas) in Member States for district heating and at local levels.

In 2015, renewable energy represented only 6.7 % of energy consumption in the transport sector (see Figure 4.3). According to preliminary estimates from the EEA, this proportion had increased marginally to 7.1 % in 2016. After rapid growth between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of RES use in transport (RES-T) dropped in 2011 and has been increasing at a slower pace since 2012. This can be explained by a number of factors, including the following:

  • The late transposition and implementation by some Member States of the legal provisions meant to ensure biofuel sustainability under the RED.
  • The debate concerning the future of biofuel policy, in the light of the indirect displacement effects of conventional crop based biofuels on other land uses. Research has shown that the significance of actual GHG savings from biofuels produced from crops grown on agricultural land primarily for energy purposes remained too uncertain to support further growth of the sector. A political agreement was reached, resulting in a cap on the use of these fuels being adopted in 2015. Accordingly, such fuels should account for a maximum of 7 % of final energy consumption in transport by 2020 (EU, 2015a, 2015b). The Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) Directive (EU, 2015b) also sets an indicative target of 0.5 % use for advanced biofuels by 2020 (e.g. fuels made from waste or algae). The Commission proposal for the Renewable Energy Directive after 2020 further requires Member States to promote targets for advanced biofuels post 2020 (0.5 % of transport fuels by 2021, rising to 3.6 % by 2030; EC, 2016f) and to gradually reduce the cap for conventional crop based biofuels to 3.8 % in 2030.
  • The use of biofuels to reduce GHG emissions remains a relatively high-cost climate mitigation option. For example, it is estimated (not considering the indirect emissions related to land use change) that the mitigation costs of biodiesel would be in the range of EUR 100 to EUR 330 per avoided tonne of CO2; for bioethanol fuels from sugars and straw, costs would range from EUR 100 to EUR 200 per tonne of avoided CO2 (Joint Research Centre, 2015). These estimates depend to a large extent on the cost differentials between fossil fuels and biofuels.

Figure 4.3 Shares of energy use from renewable sources by sector in the EU

Sources: EEA, 2017k; EU, 2009d; Eurostat, 2017d.

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[1] Gross final energy consumption represents the energy delivered to end users (industry, transport, households, services including public services, agriculture, forestry and fisheries), as well as the consumption of electricity and heat by the energy sector for electricity and heat production. It also includes losses of electricity and heat during distribution and transmission. > Back

[2] The RED foresees three main cooperation mechanisms among Member States in their pursuance of their national targets: 'statistical transfers' – where Member States agree to reattribute renewable energy production among themselves in their statistical accounting for target compliance, without any physical energy exchanges taking place; 'joint projects' – where the renewable energy from a particular project is shared between the parties, with or without a physical flow of the energy produced; and 'joint support schemes' – where Member States co-finance their renewable energy production independent of its location (within their territories). > Back

[3] For the years up to 2020, Member States have to report, in their RED progress reports, the estimated excess/deficit production of energy from renewable sources relative to their national indicative RED trajectory. > Back

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