Climate change - driving forces

Data from July 2011. Most recent data: Further Eurostat information, Main tables and Database. Planned article update: February 2017.

This article analyses underlying driving forces behind greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the European Union (EU) over the span of a decade, on the basis of statistics available from Eurostat that provide a solid basis for understanding what has led to emissions reduction. Greenhouse gases released from human activities, such as burning fuels, are the main cause behind human-induced climate change and the EU is committed to global efforts to reduce emissions.

In the decade 2000-2009, greenhouse gas emissions in the EU-27 decreased by 9.3 %, with the biggest decrease taking place in 2009 when emissions fell sharply by over 350 million tonnes CO2-equivalent in one year. This sudden decline can be attributed to the effects of the economic crisis at large as emissions decreased across all source sectors, except transport.   

Figure 1: EU-27 greenhouse gas emissions by source sector, 2009 Eurostat (tsdcc210)
Table 1: Changes in EU-27 greenhouse gas emissions by sector, 2000 and 2009
Figure 2: EU-27 population and greenhouse gas emissions, 2000-2009
Figure 3: Emissions of world's largest emitters
Figure 4: How serious a problem do you think climate change is, EU-27, 2009
Figure 5: Emissions from energy use and energy consumption, 2000-2009
Figure 6: EU-27 energy consumption by fuel, 2000 and 2009
Figure 7: Volume of inland transport, EU-27, Index 2000=100
Figure 8: Greenhouse gas emissions from transport, incl. international bunkers, 2000-2009
Figure 9: Investment in transport infrastructure by mode, 2000-2009
Figure 10: Greenhouse gas emissions from waste by source, 2000 and 2009
Figure 11: Municipal waste per capita by treatment, EU-27, 2000-2009
Figure 12: EU-27 greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by source, 2000-2009
Figure 13: Evolution of EU-27 livestock numbers, 2000-2009
Figure 14: Consumption estimate of nitrogenous fertilisers, 2000 and 2009 Eurostat (aei_fm_manfert)
Figure 15: Greenhouse gas and energy intensity of the EU-27 economy, Index 2000=100
Figure 16: Carbon productivity of the EU-27 economy by economic activity (NACE section), 2000 and 2009

Main statistical findings 

In this statistical article we look at important trends in the emissions' source sectors to help understand what has led to the emissions reduction. The European statistical system (ESS) collects official statistics that are often used to estimate greenhouse gas emissions which are then reported in emissions inventories. Thus, while the inventory data is collected by the European Environment Agency (EEA), Eurostat has a range of statistics that provide a solid basis for analysis of the underlying driving forces behind emissions. 

Climate change is a major threat to sustainable development. Indicators that monitor progress towards the objectives and targets of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy are utilised here to provide the framework for the present analysis. This article examines the period from 2000 to 2009 as it covers a decade of the latest available data.  Officially, the EU’s progress on GHG emission reduction is evaluated against targets set in its political commitments. Under the internationally binding Kyoto Protocol, the EU-15 has a collective target of 8 % reduction below levels in a chosen base year (mostly 1990) to be achieved by 2012[1]. By 2009, the EU-15 had decreased its emissions by 12.7 %[2]. Furthermore, the EU-27 has set a 20 % reduction target by 2020, also as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy.    

Main findings

  • Consumption of energy declined by 1.3 % while GHG emissions from overall energy use decreased by 8.1 % (see Table 1).
    • Out of that, the energy industries showed a decrease of emissions by 6.3 %. 
    • Transport was the only sector where emissions continued to rise, by 2.2 % over the studied period which can be explained by increasing transport volumes and the lack of significant shift towards cleaner modes and fuels.
    • The biggest relative decline was experienced by the manufacturing inudustries and construction where emissions registered a fall of 24.1 %.
  • In 2009, in the EU-27 Europeans generated roughly the same municipal waste per capita as in 2000 (about 500 kg per person per year). However, improvements in waste treatment resulted in a 19.4 % emission cut for waste by 2009.
  • Decreasing numbers of livestock (cattle, pigs, goats and sheep) and smaller amounts of nitrogenous fertilisers used can be seen as some of the reasons behind the drop of GHG emissions in agriculture. 
  • The EU economy experienced a significant downturn in 2009 due to the global economic crisis, whereby real growth rates became negative. This had a visible impact on emissions as well as a result of the contraction in economic activity. Still, the EU has become more energy and carbon-efficient than it was in 2000. This is largely due to the predominance of the services sector which generates much of the gross value added (GVA) with little emissions.  

When considering the 9.3 % decline of total EU GHG emissions, it must be borne in mind that this figure reflects only emissions arising on the territory of the EU. It thus excludes those "embedded emissions" caused indirectly by EU consumption of imported goods produced in third countries. For an analysis of the emissions induced by trade, see the Eurostat publication CO2 emissions induced by EU's final use of products are estimated to be 9 tonnes per capita

Population can be one of the main driving forces of emissions in any high-carbon economy. The number of inhabitants drives consumption and subsequently different economic activities. In the EU-27 the population grew by 3.5 %, i.e. nearly 17 million people, by 2009, while GHG emissions declined (Figure 2). Eurostat projections forecast growing population mid-term, an increase of about 21 million people by 2035 compared to 2009. Beyond that, the size of the population is expected to decrease. 

Figure 3 shows a global comparison among the world's largest emitters, both from the industrialised countries (Annex I parties to the Kyoto Protocol) and two industrialising states, namely China and India. The EU has a shrinking share of global emissions. Still the third largest emitter, in 2009 the EU's emissions were 30 % lower than those of the USA for the same year. 

Public awareness is important for successfully dealing with the causes and consequences of climate change. According to the Eurobarometer survey conducted in 2009, nearly two-thirds of EU citizens (63 %) consider climate change to be a very serious problem - down from 74% who thought so in 2008 (Figure 4). This shows a high level of awareness about the issue and marks a distinct change from a decade ago. In the Eurobarometer 1999 on the Environment, climate change was not yet included as a topic. It was taken up in the surveys from 2002 and the level of awareness and the extent to which people are concerned about it has continuously grown.

Energy use and emissions  

The EU uses more energy but emissions decrease: the energy industries and transport still the main driving forces behind emissions  

Since activities involving fuel combustion remain the main source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for nearly three fifths of total EU emissions in 2008, it is interesting to explore the evolution of energy consumption vis-à-vis emissions from energy. Emissions from energy use arise not only from the energy industries, but also transport, manufacturing industries, services and households (see Figure 1, the bigger slice of the pie).

Compared to 2000, overall energy use in the EU in 2009 has slightly decreased, by 1.3 %. Total energy demand has fallen from 1 725 million tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) to 1 703 million toe. This decline, however, is primarily due to the sharp shrink of energy demand in 2009. While the gross inland consumption has been growing annually from 2002 onwards, it declined slightly in 2007 and much more visibly in 2009 (see Figure 5). Unlike consumption, the emissions from energy have shown consistent decline since 2002, reaching a 8.1 % decrease compared to their 2000 levels. This amounts to an absolute reduction of over 320 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or the combined 2009 emissions of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland and Ireland.

The much deeper cuts in emissions from energy use suggest that energy production has switched towards less GHG-intensive sources such as, for example, renewable energy source. Indeed, as could be seen in Figure 6, the share of renewable energy sources has increased – from 6 % to 9 % of gross inland consumption. Between 2000 and 2009, the consumption of GHG-intensive fuels such as coal (and other solid fuels) and oil has decreased from a share of 57 % of total energy supply to 52 %. In contrast, the share of the less GHG-intensive energy fuels such as natural gas has increased. Fossil fuels still dominate EU energy consumption, comprising 77 % of gross inland consumption.

Nuclear energy and renewable energy sources, considered largely GHG-free or carbon-neutral as they are not based on fossil fuels, comprise the remaining 23 %.

Renewable energies, such as hydro, wind, solar and biomass, have shown a consistent increase from 2003 onwards with an average annual growth rate of about 6.6 %. Albeit still a minor source in the overall picture, renewables experienced the greatest relative increase – from a mere 97 million toe in 2000 to 153 million toe (+57 %).

The overall energy use, comprising fuel combustion and fugitive emissions from fuels, can be broken down into sub-sectors of economic activity where the emissions arise from (see Table 1). The greenhouse gas that is mainly produced from energy use is carbon dioxide (CO2) comprising nearly 97 % of emissions.

The energy industries dominate the picture both in terms of their energy consumption (that is, fuels combusted in the transformation sector for the production of electricity and heat) and in terms of emissions. They are followed by transport, other energy, including inter alia the residential, commercial and agriculture/fisheries/forestry sectors, and the manufacturing industries (fuel combustion only, e.g. in blast furnaces of cement plants).

Over the period 2000-2009, both the consumption and the emissions of the energy industries have decreased. by 1.3 % and 6.3 % respectively. In transport, emissions rose by 2.2 % and the energy use of the sector also registered an increase of 7.7 %. Transport was the sector with the biggest share of final energy consumption in 2009 - one third. By contrast, the consumption of industry declined by 18 % since 2000, with the sharpest fall in 2009.  Its emissions also fell by nearly one quarter of their 2000 levels. Besides technological changes (improvements in efficiency), switching to cleaner fuels (natural gas, biomass) or restructuring, the decreases are also due to the acute contraction of economic activity as a result of the financial crisis.

Transport-related emissions

Transport the only source where emissions continue to rise despite drops in volume in 2009

With a share of 20.2 % of total emissions in 2009, transport is the only source of emissions in the EU which experienced an increase over the period. Furthermore, transport is the sector that has exhibited continuously growing emissions. Similar to the general trend, the emissions from transport underwent a slight dip in 2009, due to the effects of the economic crisis, yet they were still about 2 % above their 2000 levels.

Besides GHG emissions, transport is also responsible for other negative externalities, e.g. air pollution, particulate matters and noise. The effects of transport infrastructure on the nature, landscape and biodiversity are also adverse. At the same time transport is essential for society and for individuals. It ensures mobility for the workers and flexibility for global production chains. Households spend about 10-15 % of their consumption on transport, as much as they spend on food or housing.

When looking at sustainable development indicators related to transport, several major tendencies emerge, serving to explain the increase of emissions. Firstly, passenger and freight transport volumes continued to grow over the period and remained above their 2000 levels (Figure 7, data for passenger transport only available until 2008). Despite a very sharp decline in freight volumes in 2009 (down by 13 percentage points from the previous year), it was still about 2 % above its volume in 2000.

Demographic projections and economic structures make it likely that the demand for transport – and thus its volume – will continue to grow in the coming decades. Increasing volumes do not of themselves necessarily have to lead to more emissions as advanced transport technologies (e.g. electrical vehicles) or the deployment of cleaner modes could offset this growth. However, over the period neither the fuels or technologies used nor a modal shift in both passenger and freight transportwere able to compensate for an increase in emissions. In freight, the share of road increased by 4 percentage points since 2000 to a current 77 % of the total.  At the same time, the use of railways declined by 3 percentage points.

One of the main goals of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy is to achieve a balanced shift towards environmentally friendly transport modes to bring about a sustainable transport and mobility system. This shift would certainly bring down GHG emissions as well. 

The accounting methodology of GHG emissions treats international aviation and bunkers separately from transport emissions. They are not included in the international commitments for reduction. Emissions from international aviation and maritime transport (international bunkers) experienced a 17.3 % growth over the studied period. If included in overall transport, this volume would bring the share of transport in total emissions up to 25 %.

Achieving sustainable transport and lower emissions requires infrastructural development in modes with lower environmental impacts. The indicator in Figure 9 shows whether there has been a shift in investment towards environmentally friendly transport modes.

Total investment in transport infrastructure, including new construction, extension, reconstruction and major repairs, reached about € 94 billion euro in 2009. Between 2000 and 2009 the share of investments in the infrastructure of modes with lower environmental impacts (rail, maritime and inland waterways) slightly decreased. Road infrastructure investments remained dominant.

Emissions from waste

Emissions from waste show a significant decrease: less municipal waste in landfill sites, more recycled and composted waste

Waste leads to GHG emissions in the form of methane (CH4) from landfill sites and wastewater handling, and nitrous oxide (N2O) from human sewage. Methane constitutes the bulk of the wasterelated GHG emissions (about 88 % in 2009). The level of methane emissions is closely related to the composition and treatment of waste; it typically rises with a higher share of organic material in the waste. In terms of mitigating climate change, methane emissions are of particular importance as the global warming potential of methane is 21 times higher than that of CO2. Waste-related methane emissions can be tackled by reducing waste volumes, diverting waste from landfill or diverting methane from waste for use as fuel (e.g. biogas).

EU GHG emissions from waste decreased by 19.4 % in the decade 2000-2009 (Table 1). This marks a much stronger decline when compared to total EU-27 emissions over the same period, which decreased by 9.3 %. When considering the different sources of waste-related emissions, the main source was solid waste disposal on land with over 76 % of the total in 2009, followed by wastewater handling with 19 %, while burning waste (incineration) was responsible for less than 3 % of emissions from the waste sector (Figure 10).

One of the data sources for estimating emissions from waste are statistics on municipal solid waste generation. EU-27 municipal waste generation remained roughly the same over the period, i.e. around 500 kg per capita per year. In 2009, about 38 % of the municipal waste was landfilled. The remainder was burned (20.1 %), recycled (23.4 %) or composted (17.3 %) in roughly equal shares. This is a marked change from ten years ago, when about 58 % was landfilled, about 16 % burned and recycled respectively, and 11 % composted (Figure 11).

It should be noted that municipal waste constitutes only a share of biodegradable waste, which is responsible for CH4 emissions from landfills. As the economic structure and waste management practices vary significantly among EU Member States, it is so far difficult to track all the developments concerning emissions only from Eurostat data. The national reduction strategies and the definition of biodegradable waste are published separately (see "European Commission-Environment").

From a climate change perspective, the lower landfill rate observed is a positive trend because it leads to abatement of methane emissions. A higher recycling rate also helps to mitigate climate change by avoiding production-related emissions. For a more detailed analysis on GHG emissions from waste, see the archived article Greenhouse gas emissions from waste disposal.

Waste is also used to generate energy. In 2009, over 26 400 thousand tonnes of oil equivalent were generated from different wastes in the EU, out of which over 55 % from municipal solid waste, 32 % from biogas and 13 % from industrial wastes. The energy production from waste in the EU in 2009 is more than double that generated a decade ago in 2000. Biogas, of which landfill gas, has experienced the largest relative increase, going from 2 253 toe in 2000 to 8 344 toe – a 270 % increase. 

Agricultural emissions

Decreasing number of livestock and less nitrogenous fertilisers used are among the reasons for decline in the agricultural emissions

Agricultural GHG emissions decreased by 7.5 % over the period (Table 1). The majority of emissions in agriculture comes from agricultural soils (nearly 51 % in 2009), followed by emissions from enteric fermentation in animals (over 31 %) and manure management (over 17 %).

Decreasing the number of animals or the use of manure or fertilisers are amongst some of the options farmers have to reduce GHG emissions. Other farming practices which may mitigate GHG emissions include the use of lower-emissions manure storage systems and application techniques. At present these practices are only partly taken into account in the GHG emission estimations. That is because data availability on these mitigation options is limited in most countries. Therefore the effect of implementing such mitigation actions through the reform of the Common agricultural policy (CAP) or the implementation of the Nitrate Directive can not be fully analysed from the available data on GHG emissions. Agriculture also affects GHG emissions indirectly through the emissions generated by the industrial production of inorganic fertilisers and machinery but these are not included in this analysis. Soil carbon impacts of agriculture which can be significant are also not taken into account in the agricultural GHG emission estimations.

One of the sources of GHG emissions in agriculture is livestock via enteric fermentation occurring in animals’ digestive systems: a process which emits methane; and manure decomposition, which emits several GHGs (nitrous oxides, methane and carbon dioxide). Figure 13 shows the trends in livestock numbers in the EU-27, which have all very slightly declined between 2 % and 6 %, except for sheep with 13 %.   

Agricultural soils emit methane and nitrous oxide through soil denitrification. Amongst the factors that influence emissions from agricultural soils are the amount of fertilisers, the type of application techniques, the fertiliser type used, the incorporation time, etc. Over the period 2000-2009, the use of nitrogenous fertilisers in the EU-15 decreased by 15 %. Data for the EU-27 is available only from 2006 onwards and a downward trend can be observed there too. It must be noted that the EU-15 are a lot more fertiliser-intensive as they comprise three quarters of the overall EU-27 consumption (see Figure 14). 

GDP and emissions

Emissions reflect the slump in economic growth yet most economic activity sectors improve their carbon productivity

The EU economy largely depends on fossil fuels, especially for electricity generation, industry and transport. It may therefore be expected that a decrease in economic activities – as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) – would lead to a decrease in overall GHG emissions. Over the period 2000-2009 the EU economy experienced mostly growth, with the exception of the last year where due to the economic crisis GDP fell sharply (Figure 15). The emissions showed a similar trend of sudden decline in 2009.  Still, the EU-27 GDP in 2009 was 12 % above its 2000 levels while GHG emissions were 9.3 % below.

If less energy is used for each 1 000 euro of GDP then the intensity is lower which indicates gains in productivity and improved energy efficiency. EU energy intensity decreased by nearly 12 % in 2000-2009 which means that for each 1000 euro of GDP the EU used 12 % less energy by the end of the studied decade. There are two possible reasons for this: first, energy may have been used more efficiently; and second, the overall economic structure of the EU may have shifted to less energy intensive economic activities (see Figure 16 for a breakdown by economic activities).

In the same way that overall energy consumption may be examined in its relation to GDP, total GHG emissions may also be considered in terms of the greenhouse gas intensity of the EU economy. In 2009, the EU GHG intensity was 19 % lower than that in 2000. Thus, for each 1 000 euro of GDP on average 448 kg of emissions in CO2-equivalent were emitted in 2009, compared with 552 kg in 2000. The GHG emissions intensity of the EU economy has improved faster still than its energy intensity, which may suggest a decoupling of emissions from energy use and economic growth.

Besides looking at overall trends, the analysis can also benefit from examining the different sectors that comprise the economy. This is possible thanks to environmental economic accounts which allow for an integrated analysis as they present the emissions using the same breakdown of economic activities in national accounts (data in air emissions accounts is available only up to 2008).

Figure 16 presents the carbon productivity of the different economic activities (except households), that is the contribution of each sector in terms of its gross value added compared with its CO2 emissions. As an indicator, productivity can be considered the inverse of intensity – while intensity shows how much emissions are emitted for the production of one unit of economic output, productivity shows how much economic value can be generated for one unit of emissions. The more economic value per tonne of emissions, the higher the productivity.

As seen in Figure 16, generally the services sectors – such as trade, financial intermediation, hotels and restaurants, and real estate (NACE sections G to K, except I) have a high carbon productivity. In other words, their gross value added (GVA) is higher than their emissions: in 2008 their combined GVA was roughly 40 % of the EU total, while their CO2 emissions accounted for a mere 5 %. The only exception here is transport (NACE I), responsible for a high share of emissions (15.2 % in 2008), which outweigh its economic contribution (7 %).

The least productive industries are the primary sectors – agriculture, forestry and fisheries (NACE A and B), mining and manufacturing (NACE C and D), and the electricity, gas and water supply sector (NACE E) with almost zero carbon productivity. Households are deliberately excluded from this analysis as they are treated here as consumers and not producers of economic value.

What can be observed as a general trend over the period 2000-2008 is that in most economic activities the carbon productivity has increased. For the total EU economy, however, the increase is about 1.5 % per year, from 2 445 euro per tonne of CO2 in 2000 to 2 809 euro/tonne CO2 in 2008.

Data sources and availability

Data sources

Data on GHG emissions were taken from the Annual European Union GHG Inventory compiled by the European Environmental Agency (EEA). It is submitted annually to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and compiled in line with the IPCC international guidelines. The EEA GHG inventory data is accessible through the EEA Greenhouse gas data viewer.

In addition, estimated data on CO2 provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) have been used, available from the publication CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion, 2010 Edition (see also the 2013 edition).

Data from the Eurobarometer report “Europeans’ attitudes towards climate change. Special Eurobarometer 322” was used to represent citizens' attitudes to climate change.

Investment in transport infrastructure: The indicator is compiled from data collected by the International Transport Forum.

Definition and coverage:

Greenhouse gas emissions: The methodologies for estimating and reporting greenhouse gas emissions under the UNFCCC are described in United Nations Document FCCC/CP/2002/8. Note that definitions of sectors do not coincide with the NACE nomenclature. The emissions totals in this Statistical article do not include emissions and removals related to land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF); nor do they include emissions from international aviation and international maritime transport. CO2 emissions from biomass with energy recovery are reported as a Memorandum item according to UNFCCC Guidelines and not included in national greenhouse gas totals.

Gross inland energy consumption represents the quantity of energy necessary to satisfy the inland consumption of the geographical entity under consideration. It corresponds to the addition of consumption, distribution losses, transformation losses and statistical differences.

Modal split of freight transport and volume of freight transport: Rail and inland waterways transport are based on movements on national territory, regardless of the nationality of the vehicle or vessel. Road transport is based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country. Almost in all countries vehicles with very low capacity are not covered.

Modal split of passenger transport and volume of passenger transport: The indicator includes transport on national territory by passenger car, bus and coach, and train.

Investment in transport infrastructure: The indicator is compiled from data collected by the International Transport Forum. Infrastructure investment means total gross investment expenditure (new construction, extension, reconstruction and major repairs) on transport infrastructure (building and other construction, machinery and equipment – excluding vehicles and rolling stock), and includes both government and private investments. The following issues should be borne in mind when analysing the data:

  • Data availability per country and year varies considerably between modes. There are some natural reasons for that since landlocked countries have no seaports and some countries do not have a inland waterways;
  • Data are completely missing for Cyprus and the Netherlands.
  • There are incomplete time series or coverage across the modes.


This publication examines the period from 2000-2009 as it covers a decade of the latest available data. Officially, the EU’s progress on GHG emission reduction is evaluated against targets set in its political commitments. Under the internationally binding Kyoto Protocol, the EU-15 has a collective target of 8 % reduction below levels in a chosen base year (mostly 1990) to be achieved over the commitment period 2008-2012. Furthermore, the EU-27 has set a 20 % reduction target by 2020, also as part of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

See also

Further Eurostat information


Main tables


Other information

External links


  1. The target is to be achieved for the commitment period 2008-2012. The remaining EU Member States that joined the Union after the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol have similar targets, with the exception of Cyprus and Malta that have no Kyoto targets.
  2. For more on tracking official progress under the Kyoto Protocol, see COM(2010) 569 final.