Climate change - driving forces

Based on data available in August 2020.

Planned article update: 27 August 2021.


At EU level, all main source sectors, except transport, have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990.

Changes in energy efficiency and fuel mix are important drivers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.

Greenhouse gas emissions by IPCC source sector, EU-27, change from 1990 to 2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and % change)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

This article presents some of the driving forces behind greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the European Union (EU). The analysis is based on statistics available from Eurostat that help to unravel the development in GHG emissions by comparing them with statistics offering information on the underlying factors. GHG emissions as result of human activities cause anthropogenic climate change. The EU contributes ambitiously to the global efforts to fight climate change and reduce GHG emissions. The EU wants to commit to being climate neutral in 2050 by introducing the first European Climate Law.[1] The Commission's ambitions are tied in with the Paris Agreement on climate change, which entered into force on 4 November 2016. The central aim of the Paris Agreement on climate change is to keep the increase in the global temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

This article shows that GHG emissions in the EU-27 have decreased by 21 % since 1990. The main driving forces behind the fall in total GHG emissions are improvements in energy efficiency and in the energy mix. Due to technological changes and innovation, less energy was consumed while more goods and services were produced. In addition, the energy that was consumed relied relatively less on carbon intensive fuels and more on renewables. As a result, the EU decoupled its economic growth from its GHG emissions, because these technical developments make it possible to increase economic growth while emitting fewer emissions. The largest reduction took place in 2009 when emissions fell sharply by 324 million tonnes CO2-equivalent, or 7.2 %. This particularly steep decline can be partly attributed to the effects of the economic crisis in general as emissions decreased across all source sectors.

Full article

General overview

This statistical article is organised in the same order as the reporting on the main source sectors in the GHG emissions inventories. First an overall picture is given, followed by sections presenting the GHG emissions of each specific source sector together with the developments for the underlying drivers. The aim is to help the reader to understand which factors influence the development of GHG emissions.

The European statistical system (ESS) collects official statistics, some of which are used to estimate GHG emissions that are reported in GHG inventories. While national statistical institutes are usually not directly responsible for compiling GHG inventory data, they often support the compilation by providing auxiliary input data.

In the EU, GHG inventories of Member States are collected by the European Environment Agency (EEA) on behalf of the European Commission, more specifically the Directorate-General for Climate Action, in order to produce the EU GHG inventory. Eurostat contributes to the validation of the GHG inventories by providing energy statistics to the EEA. Eurostat also has a range of statistics that provides a solid basis for analysing the driving forces behind GHG emissions.

Total emissions, main breakdowns by source and general drivers

Figure 1: Greenhouse gas emissions, EU-27, 1990-2018 (index 1990 = 100)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

The overall development of total GHG emissions is on the right path; in 2018 total GHG emissions equalled 3.9 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent compared with 4.9 billion tonnes in 1990, a decrease of 1.0 billion tonnes, or 21 %. Figure 1 shows that the EU is on track to reduce its GHG emissions and has already surpassed its target of a reduction by 20 % that was set for 2020. However, the EU's ambitious target for 2030, a reduction of GHG emissions by at least 40 % compared with 1990 levels, implies that this downward trend has to be maintained and even reinforced.[2] That seems like a continuous decrease of GHG emissions should not be taken for granted. About every five years there are one or two years where total GHG emissions increase slightly compared with the year before. Also in 2015, 2016 and 2017 GHG emissions increased somewhat compared to the year before. Even though the largest increase in 2015 was only 1.4 %, to reach the 2030 and 2050 targets, GHG emissions need to be strongly reduced.

Figure 2: Greenhouse gas emissions by country, absolute change 1990-2018 (million tonnes)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

The difference across Member States in the absolute change in GHG emissions is shown in Figure 2, indicating the range of absolute changes. These absolute changes add up to the EU-27 total reduction of 1.0 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent. Note that the ranking would change to a large extent if the relative changes or the changes in emissions per capita were compared. The rest of this Statistics Explained article will focus on the aggregate EU-27. More information for individual Member States can be retrieved from the Statistics Explained article 'Greenhouse gas emission statistics - emission inventories ' and the GHG inventory dataset in Eurostat's database.

The greenhouse gas emissions reported in Figure 1 are all due to human activities. Therefore, one may think that more people would cause more GHG emissions. In addition, most of these human activities are economic activities, for example to produce and consume goods and services. Hence, one may also expect that more economic activity would produce more GHG emissions. The most general indicator for economic activity is gross domestic product (GDP).  

Figure 3: Development of greenhouse gas emissions compared to GDP and population, EU-27, 1990-2018 (index 1995 = 100)
Source: Eurostat (nama_10_gdp) (demo_gind) and EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 3 shows an clear upward trend for GDP and a less distinctive, but also upward trend for population. The average total population of the EU has slowly but steadily increased since 1990. This means that the GHG emissions per person in the EU are declining slightly more than the total GHG emissions, but with a comparable pattern.

GDP had been strongly increasing up to the start of the economic crisis in 2008. However, from 2009 onwards, EU GDP was already slowly recovering and GDP surpassed the level of before the crisis in 2014. The large drop in GHG emissions in 2009 is clearly related to the economic recession, but the overall decreasing trend in GHG emissions can certainly not be attributed to a fall in economic activity. In fact, there is a clear divergence, or decoupling, between economic activity and GHG emissions, resulting in a strong downward trend in the GHG emission intensity of economic activity, measured as GHG emissions per unit of GDP.

So while GHG emissions per person decreased by 21 % over the last 23 years (1995-2018), population increased by 5 % and GDP measured in volume terms increased by 48 % over this same period. This implies that there must have been changes in how these human activities were carried out, so that even with almost continuous economic growth and increasing population, greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced.

Figure 4: Greenhouse gas emissions by IPCC source sector, EU-27, 2018
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

To better understand the driving forces behind the reduction in GHG emissions, we need to look in more detail at the sources of these GHG emissions and the underlying human activities. Figure 4 shows the GHG emissions broken down by source sectors as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). International aviation is included in all graphs and statistics presenting totals and GHG emissions from transport in this article, although it is officially reported as memo item in the GHG inventories.

Over three-quarters of the GHG emissions are due to fuel combustion. This includes fuel combustion to generate electricity and heat, produce goods, construct buildings and infrastructure, and to move freight and persons. The combustion of fossil fuels is the largest contributor to GHG emissions from this source, but the combustion of other fuels, such as waste, also generates GHG emissions. Even without combustion, GHG are still emitted from fuels as so-called fugitive emissions; emissions that simply leak into the air, for example from pressurized equipment or from storage tanks. The remaining share, just over one-fifth, is due to other activities that do not involve fuel combustion. It includes industrial processes and product uses, agricultural activities, and waste management.

Figure 5: Greenhouse gas emissions by IPCC source sector, EU-27, change from 1990 to 2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and % change)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Overall, GHG emissions have been declining, and this also holds for most source sectors (see Figure 5). However, there is one exception; GHG emissions from transport, including international aviation, have increased by 231 million tonnes, or 32 %, compared with 1990. The largest absolute decrease in emissions occurred in the fuel combustion by energy industries, which mainly produce electricity, heat and derived fuels. An impressive change in both absolute and relative terms can be seen for fuel combustion in manufacturing industries and construction. Fugitive emissions from fuels shows a large relative change, but the share in the overall total is much less, as shown in Figure 4, and hence the absolute change is smaller.

In the remainder of this article we will look at the source sectors in more detail and try to unravel what is behind these changes. In case of a fall in emissions, it may be that the activity itself takes place less often, or it may be that the GHG efficiency of the activity has improved. Improved GHG efficiency means that per standard amount of the activity, for example producing one product or processing one kilogram of waste, fewer GHG are emitted than before.

Fuel combustion

Total GHG emissions from fuel combustion have decreased by 673 million tonnes, even with the increase of GHG emissions in transport. Energy statistics are the most important source of information to identify the driving forces behind these changes. Different types of fuels can be combusted in order to transform the energy that these fuels contain into a form of energy needed for our economy to function, for example energy to power our machines or to heat our homes. Energy statistics provide information on the source of energy, the type of energy generated, and the final energy user.

Although total gross inland energy consumption of the EU-27 has remained rather stable over the last 25 years, with the consumption in 2018 being nearly the same as in 1990, the energy profiles for the different fuel combustion sectors show mixed pictures. Below the three fuel combustion sectors with decreasing GHG emissions are first discussed in more detail, before we turn to the increasing GHG emissions from the transport sector.

Energy industries

Total GHG emissions of fuel combustion by the energy industries have fallen strongly from 1990 to 2018 by 424 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 29 %. At the same time, the production of electricity and heat has increased by 19 %. The driving force of this decoupling is the change in fuel mix.

Figure 6: Greenhouse gas emissions due to fuel combustion, excluding transport, EU-27, 1990-2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

There has not been a steady change in the GHG emissions, as Figure 6 shows. In the first years after 1990, GHG emissions fell somewhat, which was likely due to the reforms and structural changes in eastern European countries. The increase in the availability of natural gas also promoted the switch from coal-fired electricity plants to gas-fired plants. However, after 2000, the starting level was nearly attained again within four years due to the economic boom. The large downturn only really started just ahead of the economic recession around 2008, aided by the increase in the share of renewables in the energy mix, among other factors.

Figure 7: Electricity and heat production by fuel, EU-27, 1990 and 2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

Of the GHG emissions from fuel combustion by energy industries, 86 % is due to public electricity and heat production. Figure 7 compares, by type of fuel, the production of electricity and heat in 1990 and 2018. What is most remarkable is the increase by 19 % of the total production of electricity and heat, from 258 to 308 million tonnes of oil equivalent (MTOE). However, the energy sources that have contributed most to this increase in absolute terms are renewable ones, with 69 MTOE, and gas, with 33 MTOE. Renewable energy sources are CO2 emission neutral from a reporting perspective. Either they do not generate GHG emissions when generating electricity, for example wind power, or they only release GHG emissions that have been locked into a fuel that is renewable in the short-term, for example wood and other biomass when grown sustainably.[3] Whereas electricity from wind or solar power is emission free at the point of generation, the combustion of natural gas still produces GHG emissions. However, it does not produce as many emissions as the combustion of solid and liquid fossil fuels.

Figure 7 also shows that the use of solid fuels and crude oil and petroleum products both decreased significantly from 1990 to 2018. The use of solid fuels fell by 37 % from 104 MTOE to 66 MTOE. The use of crude oil and petroleum products fell by 76 % from 27 MTOE to 7 MTOE. These are both fuel types with high emission coefficients; in other words, fuel types that emit relatively large amounts of GHG when they are combusted.

Renewables can also replace fossil fuels indirectly by substituting electricity generated from fossil fuels with electricity generated from renewable energy sources. Examples are electric cars, electric cooking and electric heating, which do not combust fuels on the spot. Hence, electricity from renewable sources has a large potential to reduce GHG emissions from fuel combustion.

Figure 8: Gross electricity generation from renewable energy, EU-27, 1990-2018 (thousand tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

Figure 8 shows in more detail which types of renewables have contributed most to the increase in electricity generated from this source. From the first years of the new millennium, electricity generated from renewable energy has almost tripled. Whereas hydro-electric power was almost completely responsible for all renewable electricity generated in 1990 with 89 %, it generated just 32 % of the electricity in 2018. Wind power has clearly seen the largest overall increase, while solar photovoltaic power is just catching up with the main renewable energy sources over the last few years.

Manufacturing industries and construction

Fuel combustion in manufacturing industries and construction is the source sector with the second largest reduction in GHG emissions between 1990 and 2018 by 287 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (Figure 5). The fall in emissions is driven by an increase in energy efficiency, in other words producing more output with less energy, and a change in the fuel mix.

Figure 5 also shows that the reduction in GHG emissions by 39 % in this source sector is the largest relative decrease of the fuel combustion source sectors. Figure 6 illustrates that this has been a steady path over the years, with only a small interruption linked to the economic recession.

Figure 9: Production volume of manufacturing and construction, EU-27, 1990-2018 (index 1995 = 100)
Source: Eurostat (sts_inpr_a) (sts_copr_a)

This is in contrast to the production volume by manufacturing and construction, which has increased over these years as shown by Figure 9. Manufacturing output has increased most years, with only a large drop in the year 2009 as a result of the recession. Construction output shows a different path, because the impact of the economic recession has led to a more prolonged reduction in construction output. The fall in output has lasted up to 2013 and has only slowly been increasing over the past few years. Still, just prior to the recession, construction output was around 10 % higher than in the nineties, without having a visible impact on the GHG emissions for these years (see Figure 6).

Figure 10: Industry final energy consumption by fuel, EU-27, 1990 and 2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

Although production output has increased in these industries, the GHG emissions have fallen and hence the GHG intensity of the activities has been reduced. The industry's final energy consumption composition in Figure 10 shows the two underlying drivers for the reduction in GHG emissions: energy efficiency and a change in the fuel mix. Energy efficiency has increased, because more is produced with less energy; from 1990 to 2018 the total final energy consumption by industry has fallen by 22 %. In addition, the fuel mix has changed, although not as prominently as for electricity and heat generation. Still, the consumption of solid fuels and total petroleum products has more than halved over the years, whereas the use of renewable energy has increased by nearly three-quarters. This implies that fewer greenhouse gases are emitted per unit of energy used.

Households, commerce, institutions and others

GHG emissions from fuel combustion by households, commerce, institutions and others contributed with a fall of 193 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent to the reduction of GHG emissions, mainly due to a change in the fuel mix used.

Figure 11: Household final energy consumption by fuel, EU-27, 1990-2018 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

The relative drop in GHG emissions of 26 % over 1990 to 2018 (Figure 5) follows from a relatively stable downward trend (Figure 6). Fuel combustion by private households caused 59 % of this source sector's emissions, and decreased by a slightly larger percentage than the source sector total. Figure 11 shows the related changes in the energy consumption of households between 1990 and 2018, which even increased by 4 % over the same period of time. In this case, the fuel mix change is the sole driver of the reduction of GHG emissions. The use of solid fuels fell by 70 % and the use of petroleum products halved. Households now use substantially more renewables, of which the use doubled, and more natural gas and electrical energy.

Additional drivers for the decrease in GHG emissions of households are energy efficiency improvements in space heating and the increase in energy efficiency of large electrical appliances.[4]

Transport-related emissions, including emissions from international aviation

The transport sector, including international aviation, is the only fuel combustion sector which shows an increase in GHG emissions when comparing 1990 with 2018, as shown in Figure 5. Between 1990 and 2018, total GHG emissions increased by 32 %, or 231 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. The volume of transport, measured as the amount transported times the distance, increased until the economic recession. However, fuel efficiency has not improved substantially enough to offset the increase in transport volume.

Figure 12: Greenhouse gas emissions of transport, EU-27, 1990-2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 12 presents the development over time of GHG emissions by the transport sector in more detail. To provide a complete picture, this figure also includes international navigation, which constitutes 12 % of the total GHG emissions of transport as reported here. Although GHG emissions are higher in 2018 compared with 1990, there has been a decreasing trend from 2007 up to 2013. However, currently GHG emissions from transport are back to an increasing trend. Still, in 2018 emissions were not yet back at the maximum of 2007 when GHG emissions were more than a third higher than in 1990. Road transport is the largest contributor with close to three quarters of the transport-related GHG emissions. International aviation has seen the largest growth over the years by more than doubling its GHG emissions.

Figure 13: Transport activity, EU-28, 1995-2017 (index 1995 = 100, based on tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres)
Source: DG MOVE Statistical Pocketbook 2019

The development in GHG emissions correlates closely with overall transport activity, also referred to as transport performance, measured in tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres, see Figure 13. Note that these statistics are currently only available for the EU-28 and up to 2017. Still, the general trend will not be very different for the EU-27. Passenger transport has increased during most of the years and only shows small setbacks, whereas freight transport clearly shows the impact of the economic recession. With less economic activity, less transport of goods is required. Transport performance statistics confirm that road transport is the most important mode of transport; 80 % of passenger transport performance and 50 % of freight transport performance is due to road transport when considering all types of transport modes (inland, air and maritime transport).

The energy consumption in transport has increased by 37 % from 1990 to 2018, in line with the increase in transport activity. Overall, transport has hardly improved its fuel efficiency. Almost all fuel used in transport consists of petroleum products and there has only been a marginal shift towards renewables, so there has not been a significant favorable shift in the fuel mix as seen for the other sectors.[5]

To conclude, energy mix changes seem to be the driving force behind the reduction in most fuel combustion sectors. In particular the manufacturing and construction industries have managed to substantially increase their energy efficiency. The following sections describe the GHG emissions by source sectors other than fuel use.

Industrial processes and product use

The source sector 'industrial processes and product use' is responsible for 8.8 % of the total GHG emissions including international aviation. Of the three non-energy sectors, it has the largest absolute reduction in GHG emissions in 2018 compared with 1990, equal to 105 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. The sector represents a wide range of production processes and economic activities across different industries.

Table 1: Greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes and product use - selected sectors, EU-27, 1990 and 2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

To understand what drives the reduction in GHG emissions, it is useful to have a more detailed look at the sub-sectors with the largest shares. Table 1 shows a selected subset of the industrial processes and product use sector. All production processes that traditionally had a large share in the total, namely mineral (cement), chemical and metal manufacturing, have managed to reduce their GHG emissions sizeably. The GHG emissions from nitric acid production are even reduced to a small fraction of what they used to be.

A completely opposite trend is seen for the sub-sector 'product uses as substitutes for ozone depleting substances' which mainly relates to the emissions of fluorinated gases (F-gases). Within this sub-sector, refrigeration and air conditioning has by far the largest absolute increase with 77 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. The demand for refrigeration and air conditioning will most likely increase in the future, so the GHG intensity of this sector will need to be reduced.

Agricultural emissions

Out of the total GHG emissions in 2018, 10 % was emitted by the agricultural sector. Over the time span 1990 to 2018, the sector reduced its emissions by 102 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, which corresponds to -21 % compared with 1990. Figure 14 shows the GHG emissions in 1990 and 2018 for different agricultural activities.

Figure 14: Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, EU-27, 1990 and 2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Emissions from enteric fermentation (methane), the fermentation of feed during the digestive processes of animals, were reduced by 50 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 23 % of the 1990 GHG emissions. The largest share of the GHG emissions due to enteric fermentation, 85 %, are from the digestive system of cattle. These emissions fell by 22 % over 28 years, but the decrease in GHG emissions primarily took place during the first decade. The emission reduction for the years 2001 to 2019 is equal to only 5 %, whereas there was a 8 % drop in the head count of bovine animals[6], which includes cattle, buffaloes and oxen (Figure 15). Data on bovine animals for the EU-27 is not available for years before 2001, because data for a couple of small countries is missing, but based on what is available, the livestock data shows a drop of around a quarter for the period 1990 to now.

Figure 15: Livestock, EU-27, 2001-2019 (million head)
Source: Eurostat (apro_mt_lspig) (apro_mt_lscatl)

Not all digestive systems produce as much methane as the digestive system of cattle. For example, the head count of swine in the EU-27 is 185 % of the head count of bovine animals, as shown in Figure 15. Still, the enteric fermentation of swine is only 2 %, of total GHG emissions of enteric fermentation.

Emissions from manure management fell by 18 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 24 %. GHG emissions from manure management are either estimated based on livestock statistics or manure management system usage data. They include methane emissions (two-thirds on average) and nitrous oxide emissions (one-third on average).

Figure 16: Manure production, quantity of nitrogen, EU-27, 2004-2014 (million tonnes)
Source: Eurostat (aei_pr_gnb)

Figure 16 shows the quantity of nitrogen from manure production over the ten years up to 2014. The quantity of nitrogen in manure production from swine has fallen more than the quantity of nitrogen in manure production from bovine animals over these ten years. More detailed data from the GHG inventories shows that the reduction in GHG emissions from manure management are in line with the changes in the quantity of nitrogen in manure production: GHG emissions from swine manure management fell by more than GHG emissions from cattle manure management over these years. Cattle manure management and swine manure management contribute respectively by 44 % and 35 % to the total GHG emissions from manure management in 2018.

Emissions from waste

Emissions from waste have fallen mainly due to a reduction in GHG emissions from solid waste disposal following a reduction in the amount of landfilling; the deposit of waste into or onto land. The organic fraction of waste landfilled creates methane emissions.

In 2018, the share of waste management in total GHG emissions was just 3 % (see Figure 4). GHG emissions from waste management have been reduced by 57 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. Although in absolute terms this sector has the smallest reduction in GHG emissions, it managed to reduce its emissions by 33 % over the 28 years for which we have GHG inventories.

Figure 17: Greenhouse gas emissions of waste management, EU-27, 1990-2018 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 17 shows that waste management emissions remained relatively stable for almost the first ten years. However, since the second half of the 1990s, GHG emissions started to fall, and have continued to do so in a very stable way. In absolute terms, the decrease was largest for solid waste disposal with 44 million tonnes or 34 %. Waste water treatment reduced its GHG emissions by 43 %, but due to the smaller share in the total, this only amounts to 17 million tonnes.

Figure 18: Municipal waste treatment, EU-27, 2000-2018 (million tonnes)
Source: Eurostat (env_wasmun)

Figure 18 shows statistics from municipal waste treatment that give more background on the apparently steady fall of GHG emissions from waste management.

The practice of disposing of waste by landfilling was reduced by more than half over 15 years. There are two main reasons for this reduction. First, the recycling and composting of solid waste is now close to three times its 1995 value. Given that 1) our economy is growing and needs materials to produce goods and service, 2) material resources are not unlimited and 3) the use of primary materials needs to be reduced, recycling has become more and more important. Second, total incineration with energy recovery has increased. This seems counterfactual to the fact that GHG emissions from incineration have reduced. However, GHG emissions from incineration with energy recovery are not recorded in the waste sector of the GHG inventories, but in the energy sector. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions from burning biomass are only included as a memo item in the GHG inventories and are not included in the total value of GHG emissions reported. Figure 7 shows that waste used as a fuel to produce electricity and heat has increased fourfold over 28 years. Overall, renewable and non-renewable waste has been used to increase energy for gross inland consumption by 17 million tonnes of oil equivalent from 1990 to 2018, a four-fold increase.

The strong reduction in landfilling as a treatment of waste is a combined result of the Waste Framework Directive (Directive 2008/98/EC) and the Landfill Directive (Council Directive 1999/31/EC). The Waste Framework Directive sets out a waste hierarchy that serves as the priority order in waste prevention and management, legislation and policy. Waste disposal is last on the list. The objective of the Landfill Directive is to prevent or reduce as far as possible the negative effects on the environment and risks to human health from the landfilling of waste. According to a report by the EEA, the Landfill Directive has been effective in reducing landfilling and increasing the use of alternative waste management options. Several legislative proposals have been adopted in 2015 and came into effect in 2018 to review waste policy as part of the Circular Economy Package. These Directives aim to further increase re-use and recycling and limit disposal such as landfilling.

Land use, land use change and forestry is an overall sink of emissions

In addition to the sources of GHG emissions represented in Figure 4 and Figure 5, GHG inventories also include a sector that is, overall, a sink of GHG emissions. This means that the total GHG emissions recorded for this sector are negative, because these GHG emissions are removed from the atmosphere. This sector is called land use, land use change and forestry, which is often abbreviated to LULUCF. Of these, forestry is the reason LULUCF emissions are negative.

Depending on the context and purpose, emissions from LULUCF are either included in, or excluded from, reported total GHG emissions. Reporting obligations related to LULUCF differ under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol; for industrialised countries, LULUCF is covered by the Kyoto Protocol. Under the Kyoto Protocol, EU Member States have committed to compensate GHG emissions from land use by an equivalent absorption of CO2 emissions through additional action in the sector up until 2020.

Until very recently, LULUCF was excluded from the EU climate and energy package. The Regulation on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) into the 2030 climate and energy framework was adopted on 14 May 2018. LULUCF is included on the basis of “no debit”, which means that each Member State has to ensure that emissions from land use are compensated by a removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere through action in the LULUCF sector. The Regulation introduces this commitment for the first time in EU law for the period 2021-2030. [7]

Figure 19: Greenhouse gas emissions from LULUCF, EU-27, 1990-2018 (billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 19 shows, with a purple line, the total GHG emissions when the negative emissions from LULUCF are included in the total. On average this results in a decrease of total GHG emissions by 6.8 %, ranging from 5.2 % in 1990 to 8.1 % in 2013. Of the different land use types, the only actual sink of GHG emissions in the EU GHG inventory is forest land. Hence, forests play an important role in the mitigation (in other words reduction) of GHG emissions. For all other land use types, such as cropland, grassland, wetlands and settlements, positive GHG emissions are recorded. Harvested wood products are a sink of GHG emissions. Grassland and wetlands left undisturbed can also become a sink.

The EU forest strategy 2014-2020 of the European Commission highlights that forests are not only important for economic and social purposes, but also for the environment, for example in the fight against climate change. It calls on Member States to demonstrate how they intend to increase their forests' mitigation potential and how to enhance their forests' adaptive capacities and resilience.

Figure 20: Forest area, EU-27, 1990-2015 with five year intervals (million hectares)
Source: Eurostat (for_area)

Forestry statistics show indeed that the total forest area within the EU-27 has increased from 1990 to 2015, see Figure 20. Other wooded land has slightly decreased over the years, but overall the trend is still positive.

GHG intensities of economic activities

The GHG emission intensity of the total economy, the amount of GHG emissions in grams of CO2-equivalents per euro of value added in the EU-27, has decreased by 22.5 %, when comparing 2018 with 2008.

Estimating the emission intensities of economic activities requires emission data that is conceptually aligned to national accounts data. GHG inventories are the primary reporting format for GHG emissions, but the inventory source sectors cannot be matched one-to-one with economic activities (industries) as recorded in national accounts. The scope of each of the source sectors in the GHG inventories is defined in a way that best fits the underlying technical processes that result in GHG emissions.

Within the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), air emissions are recorded in accounts that apply the same accounting concepts, structures, rules and principles as the System of National Accounts.[8] These air emissions accounts are consistent with national accounts, including the break-down by economic activity according to the NACE Rev.2 classification. Air emissions accounts also enable the analysis of changes in economic structure and the effect on GHG emissions.

Figure 21: Greenhouse gas emissions by economic activity according to the NACE classification, EU-27, 2018
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_ainah_r2)

The shares of GHG emissions by economic activity are presented in Figure 21. In the air emissions accounts, emissions are assigned to the economic activities for which the GHG are emitted. For example, emissions reported as transportation in the GHG inventories are partly assigned to households and other economic activities that operate their own transport fleet. The Statistics Explained article 'Greenhouse gas emission statistics - air emissions accounts' showcases the air emissions accounts in more detail.

By combining information from air emissions accounts and national accounts, GHG emission intensities of economy activities can be calculated. Emission intensities express how many GHG emissions are produced per unit of output or value added of the economic activity.

Table 2: CO2 intensity by economic activity, EU-27, 2008 and 2018 (grams per euro, chain linked volumes 2010 and index 2008 = 100)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_aeint_r2)

Table 2 shows the GHG emissions in grams of CO2-equivalents emitted for each euro of value added generated by the different economic activities in more detail. Electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning supply shows by far the largest amount of GHG emitted per euro of value added. Ranking second in absolute terms is transportation and storage. Other economic activities with high GHG intensities are the primary and secondary sectors; agriculture, forestry and fishing; mining and quarrying; and manufacturing. Service sectors emit much less GHG per euro of value added. In general, economic structural changes towards a bigger service sector implies fewer GHG emissions.

Table 2 also shows the change of these GHG intensities from 2008 to 2018. For four economic activities the GHG intensity has increased when comparing 2018 with 2008. These sectors are households as employers and producers with an increase of 19.0 %, financial and insurance activities with an increase of 10.0 %, construction with an increase of 9.5 %, and mining and quarrying with an increase of 2.1 %. The increase for households is coupled with a small absolute increase of 1 gram per euro. Although the relative change for mining and quarrying is much smaller than for construction, the emission intensity for the former increased with 26 grams per euro, while the latter increased by 9 grams per euro. For construction emission intensities increased after 2009 up to 2013 and from then fluctuates a bit up and down at just over 100 grams per euro. The increase in emission intensities is likely an effect of the economic recession with value added falling more than the GHG emissions. Construction was particularly hit by the economic downturn. Most economic activities managed to have lower GHG emission intensities by 2018 compared with 2008.

GHG footprint of consumption and investment by the EU-27

The GHG footprint is a measure of how much GHG was emitted along the full production chain of a product that ends up in the EU-27 as final consumption or investment, irrespective of the industry or country where the GHG emission occurred. These emissions are sometimes referred to as emissions 'embodied' in EU-27 consumption, although they are not literally included in the final products, and these products are not only consumed, but may also be investment goods.

GHG footprints are estimated using environmental-economic modelling, which results in higher margins of error due to various modelling assumptions. For example, the estimate for emissions embodied in imports is based on the ‘domestic-technology-assumption’; in other words it is assumed that the imported products are produced with production technologies similar to those employed within the EU. Hence, GHG footprints are less reliable than GHG inventories and air emissions accounts.

Still, GHG footprints offer a valuable additional perspective to GHG inventories and air emissions accounts. The latter record emissions on the production side, at the origin of the emissions. In contrast, GHG footprints are estimated from the perspective of the final product and where it ends up, and are, therefore, also referred to as consumption-based accounts. GHG footprints are estimated by combining information from air emissions accounts with economic accounts in so-called input-output tables.

Table 3: Carbon footprint by product, EU-27, 2018 (million tonnes and percentage of total)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_io10)

Table 3 presents the products with the largest share in the total EU-27 GHG footprint. The total EU-27 GHG footprint is 3.9 billion tonnes. Of the total GHG emissions due to EU-27 demand for products, 9.3 % of the emissions are caused by the final demand for electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning. The production of these products is very energy-intensive so it is not a surprise that it contributes most to the footprint. The same applies to 'constructions and construction works'. Construction itself requires energy, but cement and steel, both used in construction, also have very GHG-intensive production processes (see Table 1). More surprising is the high rank of the final demand of food, beverages and tobacco products, which contribute 9.2 % to the total footprint.

Figure 22: CO2 emissions — production and consumption perspective breakdown, EU-27, 2018 (million tonnes)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_io10)

Finally, Figure 22 shows on the right-hand side the breakdown of the GHG footprint into direct emissions by households, emissions in the EU-27 due to EU-27 final demand, and avoided emissions due to imports to meet EU-27 final demand. By importing various goods and services from the rest of the world, the EU can be deemed to have ‘avoided’ 609 million tonnes of GHG emissions that would otherwise have been emitted on its own territory.

On the left-hand side the production perspective is shown, which includes EU-27 emissions embodied in exported products. Due to the difference in the emissions embodied in trade, the EU-27 emits more GHG than is needed to produce the final demand of the EU-27 itself, the difference being 118 million tonnes.

Not shown in the figure is the estimate of a total of 218 million tonnes of avoided emissions due to imports that are embodied in exports, as these are neither emitted in the EU-27, nor 'imported' to meet EU-27 demand. They are an estimate of the emissions that merely pass through the EU-27.

More information on carbon footprints can be found in the Statistics Explained article 'Greenhouse gas emission statistics - carbon footprints'.

Data sources

GHG emission data from the GHG inventories is from Eurostat's dataset Greenhouse gas emissions by source sector (env_air_gge). This dataset is a republication of the GHG inventories as published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The EEA GHG inventory data is accessible through the EEA greenhouse gas data viewer.

The Directorate-General for Climate Action of the European Commission has overall responsibility for the inventory of the EU and the reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The EEA is responsible for the preparation of the EU's GHG inventory as well as for the implementation of the quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) procedures on the GHG inventories reported by the 28 Member States and Iceland. The EEA is supported in its work by the European Topic Centre on Climate Change Mitigation and Energy (ETC/CME). Each Member State compiles its national inventory and submits it to both the UNFCCC and to the EEA. Eurostat collects national energy statistics reported under the EU Energy Statistics Regulation and is responsible for supplying the energy data for the IPCC reference approach for CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. This is a key verification procedure of the energy data reported in the EU GHG inventory. The Joint Research Centre is responsible for the QA/QC of the LULUCF and agriculture sectors in the EU’s GHG inventory.

The annual reporting rules on GHG emissions for the EU and its Member States are set in the EU monitoring mechanism legislation: Regulation (EU) No 525/2013 on a mechanism for monitoring and reporting, Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) No 666/2013 establishing the inventory system, and Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 749/2014 defining the details of the submission process. These regulations will in be repealed on 1 January 2021 by the Regulation (EU) 2018/1999 on the Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action and new implementing acts. The GHG inventories are compiled in line with the 2006 guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the monitoring mechanism is based on internationally agreed obligations under the UNFCCC.

Data on transport performance is from the Statistical pocketbook 2019 of the Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, which includes data from Eurostat, from other sources and own estimates.

All other statistics are from Eurostat and accessible through Eurostat's online database. Each dataset can be identified by Eurostat's online data code reported as the source below the figure or table.

Direct hyperlinks to each Eurostat dataset, for the selection of variables and lay-out of dimensions used for this article are included in the attached Excel file (see below).

Definition and coverage

Greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and several fluorinated gases; sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Carbon dioxide represents more than four-fifths or 82 % of total GHG emissions in 2018, as shown in Figure 23. Both the share of carbon dioxide and the share of fluorinated gases have increased one or two percentage points from 1990 to 2018, while the shares of methane and nitrous oxide have fallen one or two percentage points.

Figure 23: Greenhouse gas emissions by gas type in CO2-equivalents, EU-27, 2018
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

To be able to compare and add the GHG emissions together, each GHG is expressed in CO2- equivalent based on its global warming potential (GWP) relative to carbon dioxide. For example, methane absorbs 25 times more thermal infrared radiation than carbon dioxide and is therefore 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. To calculate methane in CO2-equivalent, the amount of methane is multiplied by its GWP value of 25. Note that these GWPs are occasionally updated when new information on the energy absorption or life time of the gases becomes available from scientific research. At this moment, the GWP values used to compile GHG inventories in Europe are taken from the Technical Summary [9] of the Fourth Assessment Report Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis of the IPCC. The EU has determined[10] that from 2023 GHG inventories will be reported based on the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report.[11].

All GHG totals in this article include indirect CO2 emissions. All GHG totals exclude emissions and removals due to land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF), except for Figure 19. Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of biomass are recorded as memorandum item in GHG inventories and are also not included in the various totals. In contrast, all GHG totals, and the figures on transport, include international aviation, although it is officially reported as memo item in the GHG inventories. All other memo items (transport and storage of CO2, international navigation, and multilateral operations) are excluded.

National inventories for greenhouse gases and other air pollutants Air emissions accounts
Emissions are assigned to the country where the emission takes place (territory principle). Emissions are assigned to the country where the company causing the emission is based (residence principle).
Emissions are assigned to technical processes (e.g. combustion in power plants, solvent use). Emissions are classified by economic activity (using the NACE classification as used in the system of national accounts).
Emissions from international shipping and aviation are assigned to the countries where the associated fuel is purchased regardless of where the purchasing company is based. Emissions from international shipping and aviation are assigned to the countries where the airline/shipping company is based, regardless of where the emission takes place.

Note: National and EU totals differ between the two approaches, as different boundaries apply. GHG inventories include international aviation and maritime transport (international bunker fuels) as memorandum items, which means that they are excluded from national totals reported. However, they are included in air emissions accounts totals. Therefore total emissions reported in GHG inventory databases can differ significantly from the total reported in air emissions accounts for countries with a large international aircraft and/or shipping fleet.
Source: dedicated section on climate change related statistics

Although GHG inventories and air emissions accounts both report GHG emissions, there are differences in definition and scope that result in differences in the reported values both at the total level and for individual sectors. Table 4 lists the main differences between GHG inventories and air emissions accounts. Data from the latter have been used to compile GHG emissions by economic activity (Figure 21), GHG intensities (Table 2) and GHG footprints (Table 3 and Figure 22).

Significant differences between the totals for GHG inventories and air emissions accounts may occur in certain countries where very large resident businesses engage in international water and air transport services. For instance, in Denmark, carbon dioxide emissions reported in the accounts are more than 2 times the amount of emissions reported in inventories. This difference is due to a very large Danish shipping business, which operates vessels worldwide, and hence bunkers most of its fuel and emits most of its emissions outside Denmark. These emissions abroad are not accounted for in the Danish GHG inventory, but they are included in the air emissions accounts. For the EU as a whole, the differences between totals from the GHG inventories and the air emissions accounts are much less pronounced.

For the agricultural data on livestock and manure production: 'swine' excludes wild swine, and 'bovine animals' includes cattle, buffaloes and oxen.

More detail on the definition and scope of the statistics reported on in this article can be found in the metadata accompanying the respective datasets.


Climate change as a result of human activities is a major threat to society due to the wide-ranging impacts on ecosystems, the economy, human health and wellbeing. It is a problem of common concern to everyone, which requires a global response in order to limit the risks and impacts of climate change. The European Commission addresses the causes and consequences of climate change through European regulations and policies and by being an ambitious partner in the international activities in this field. For monitoring the progress in reducing GHG emissions, as well as for monitoring the drivers, the impact and the adaptation to climate change, high quality data is essential.

EU policy context

The EU’s progress on greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction is evaluated against targets set in its political commitments. The EU succeeded in reducing its GHG emissions beyond the amounts agreed on in the first commitment period (2008-2012) of the Kyoto Protocol. According to projections, the target set for 2020 in the 2020 climate & energy package, a 20 % reduction of GHG emissions compared with 1990, will also be met. The EU is working towards cutting at least 40 % of its emissions in 2030 compared with 1990, as target set in the 2030 climate & energy framework and in accordance with the EU's commitment to the Paris agreement. By 2050 the EU aims to be climate neutral.[12]

The two main instruments to achieve the EU GHG targets are the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD). The EU ETS is a market for trading carbon that works on the basis of a cap set on the amount of GHG emissions that can be emitted by installations covered by the system. Within the cap, companies receive or buy emission allowances. If a company produces less GHG emissions than it has allowances for, it can sell these to a company that needs more. The market forces of supply, demand, and the resulting prices ensure that the lowest-cost solutions for reducing GHG emissions are implemented. The Effort Sharing Decision covers emissions from most sectors not included in the EU ETS and establishes binding annual GHG emission targets for the EU Member States for these sectors.

For the commitment period from 2021-2030, two new Regulations have been adopted recently; the Regulation on binding annual GHG emission targets by Member States for 2021-2030 for the sectors not regulated under the EU ETS, such as transport, agriculture and waste, and the Regulation on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry in the 2030 climate and energy framework. The second Regulation includes binding commitments for each Member State to ensure that accounted emissions from land use are entirely compensated by an equivalent removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere through action in the sector. It also specifies the accounting rules to determine compliance. Also, the burning of biomass will count towards the 2030 commitments of each Member State. To address the GHG emissions from transport, the Commission has put together a strategy on low-emission mobility to increase the use of low and zero-emission vehicles and alternative low-emission fuels. zero-emission vehicles and alternative low-emission fuels.

Countries in Europe will face severe challenges such as heat extremes, water scarcity, forest fires, sea level rise, storm surges, floods and landslides. This is why, in 2013, the EU adopted the EU Adaptation Strategy to enhance preparedness and resilience in Europe. Complementing the activities of Member States, the strategy supports action by promoting greater coordination and information-sharing between Member States, and by ensuring that adaptation considerations are addressed in all relevant EU policies. To reflect and to respond to the accelerating occurrence of extreme weather events and climate impacts, and the new political context provided by the Paris Agreement, an evaluation[13] of the EU Adaptation Strategy was published in November 2018. The European Commission will continue working on making Europe more climate-resilient.

EU contribution to the global policy context

The EU is an ambitious contributor to the global efforts to fight climate change and reduce GHG emissions. The fight against climate change at global level is governed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention is an international environmental treaty that entered into force in 1994 and has been ratified by 197 countries, including all EU Member States, as well as the EU itself. The objective of the UNFCCC as expressed in the Convention text is "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

The Kyoto Protocol is the first international agreement linked to the UNFCCC to set binding emission reduction targets for industrialised countries, among them the EU as a region. It includes two commitment periods: from 2008 to 2012, and from 2013 to 2020. The second commitment period was agreed upon in the Doha Amendment to the Protocol, which has not yet entered into force.

The latest key step in the process is the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on 4 November 2016. The Paris Agreement is the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate agreement. It was adopted during the 21st Conference of the Parties in December 2015 in Paris. The objectives of the Paris Agreement are to keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerabilities. The goals of the Paris Agreement should be met by working towards achieving the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) put forward by the Parties to the Agreement, and planning for and implementing adaptation action. The EU has been at the forefront of the international efforts to reach the Paris Agreement and has recently raised its ambition to becoming the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

In parallel, the sustainable development goals (SDGs) agreed upon in 2015 include a climate action goal. The targets related to this goal do not address GHG emissions directly, but are important to combat climate change and its impacts through capacity building, promoting climate change measures, and strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to withstand the impacts of climate change. In addition to the dedicated climate action goal, several of the other SDGs are related to climate change, either directly or indirectly.

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  1. See the European Green Deal of the European Commission.
  2. For more details and background see the Commission's progress report on climate action: Communication COM(2019) 599 final and the accompanying Commission Staff Working Document SWD/2019/ 396 final, and the EEA's report on emissions trends and projections.
  3. For this reason, carbon dioxide emissions from burning biomass are only included as a memo item in the GHG inventories and they are not included in the total GHG emissions reported.
  4. For more detailed information see EEA's article 'Progress on energy efficiency in Europe'.
  5. For an in-depth analysis of developments in the environmental performance of transport in the EU see the EEA reports The first and last mile — the key to sustainable urban transport, Progress of EU transport sector towards its environment and climate objectives, Electric vehicles from life cycle and circular economy perspectives, and Aviation and shipping — impacts on Europe's environment.
  6. GHG emissions from enteric fermentation of cattle and cattle manure management excludes buffaloes, which are reported under 'other livestock'.
  7. For more information see the website with information on LULUCF in the EU of Directorate General Climate Action.
  8. See also the Statistics Explained article 'Environmental accounts - establishing the links between the environment and the economy'.
  9. See Section TS.2.5, page 33-34 of the Technical Summary.
  10. See the Commission's Delegated Regulation 2020/1044
  11. See the column ‘GWP 100-year’ in Table 8.A.1 of Appendix 8.A of the report ‘Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis - Contribution of Working Group I to the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, page 731.
  12. See the Commission's European Green Deal and the European Climate Law.
  13. The evaluation was published as a report on lessons learned and reflections on improvements for future action and an accompanying staff working document.