Statistics Explained

Climate change - driving forces

Based on data available in August 2022.

Planned article update: August 2023.


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 source sector, EU, change from 1990 to 2020 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and % change)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

GHG emissions as result of human activities cause anthropogenic climate change. The EU is an ambitious contributor to the global efforts to fight climate change and reduce GHG emissions and is committed to being climate neutral by 2050.

This article analyses major driving forces behind long-term trends of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the European Union (EU) based on statistics available from Eurostat.

GHG emissions in the EU have decreased by 32 % between 1990 and 2020 (the most recent reference year for which data officially reported to UNFCCC are available). Notably, 2020 has seen a special decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, GHG emissions are expected to increase back to the level of the long-term trend. The main driving forces behind the long-term fall in total GHG emissions are improvements in energy efficiency and in the energy mix.

Full article

General overview

This statistical article is organised in the same order as the reporting on the main source sectors in the GHG emission 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 emission inventories. While national statistical institutes are usually not directly responsible for compiling GHG emission inventory data, they often support the compilation by providing auxiliary input data.

In the EU, GHG emission 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 emission inventory. Eurostat contributes to the validation of the GHG emission inventories by providing energy statistics to the EEA. Eurostat also has a range of statistics that provide 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, 1990-2020_(index 1990 = 100)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 1 shows that overall, the EU's GHG emissions have been following a downward trend over the last three decades; in 2020 - the most recent year for which figures officially reported to UNFCCC are available – total GHG emissions (excluding LULUCF - Land use, land use change and forestry - and memo items while including international aviation; see blue-green line in Figure 1) equalled 3.35 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent compared with 4.9 billion tonnes in 1990, a decrease of 1.55 billion tonnes, or 32 %. The net GHG emissions (including LULUCF, i.e. taking into account net-removals) amounted to 3.13 billion tonnes in 2020 compared to 4.7 billion tonnes CO2-equivalent in 1990 (-33 %, see pink line in Figure 1). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions declined extraordinarily in 2020. Eurostat estimates that in 2021, GHG emissions will increase to pre-pandemic levels. Already in 2018 the EU surpassed its reduction target of 20 % that was set for 2020 (blue-green line and dot in Figure 1). The target proposed for 2030, a reduction of GHG emissions by 55 % compared with 1990 levels is for net GHG emissions, i.e. taking into account net removals in LULUCF (see pink line and dot in Figure 1).

Figure 2: Greenhouse gas emissions by country, absolute change 1990-2020 (million tonnes)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 2 shows the absolute 1990-2020 change in GHG emissions by country. These absolute changes add up to the EU total reduction of 1.55 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. 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, 1990-2020 (index 1995 = 100)
Source: Eurostat (nama_10_gdp) (demo_gind) and EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 3 shows a clear upward trend for GDP and a less distinctive, but also upward trend for population. Over the last decades, the average annual growth rates are 1.4 % and 0.2 %, respectively. The GHG emissions per person in the EU have been declining, on average -1.4 % annually.

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 source sector, EU, 2020
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 reported in UNFCCC GHG emission inventories inventories. 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 emission inventories.

About three-quarters of the GHG emissions are due to fuel combustion. This includes fuel combustion to generate electricity and heat (energy industries), to manufacture goods and to construct buildings and infrastructure (manufacturing industries and construction), to heat buildings and to warm water (households, commerce etc.), and to move freight and persons (transport). The remaining share of total GHG emissions, about one quarter, is due to other activities that mainly do not involve fuel combustion. It includes industrial processes and product uses, agricultural activities, and waste management.

Figure 5. Greenhouse gas emissions by source sector, EU, change from 1990 to 2020 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent and % change)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Overall, GHG emissions have been declining, and this holds for most source sectors (see Figure 5). However, there is one exception; GHG emissions from fuel combustion in transport, including international aviation, have increased, compared with 1990. The largest absolute decrease in emissions occurred in the fuel combustion of the energy sector, which mainly related to generation of electricity and heat. An impressive change in both absolute and relative terms can be seen for fuel combustion in manufacturing industries and construction. The remainder of this article looks at the source sectors in more detail and explains what is behind these changes.

Fuel combustion

In 2020, GHG emissions from fuel combustion stood at 2 482 million tonnes; which was 1 144 million tonnes less than in 1990.

Fuel combustion is broken down into four sub-sectors, three of which are presented in Figure 6. Transport, the fourth sub-sector of fuel combustion is discussed further below.

Figure 6: Greenhouse gas emissions due to fuel combustion, excluding transport, EU, 1990-2020 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Energy industries

Total GHG emissions of fuel combustion by the energy industries (public electricity and heat production, petroleum refining, and manufacturing of solid fuels) have fallen strongly from 1990 to 2020 by 657 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 46 %. At the same time, the production of electricity and heat has increased by 13 %. The driving force behind this positive development is the change in fuel mix in the energy sector. Emission-intensive solid and liquid fossil fuels have been replaced by renewable energy sources and natural gas. The latter does not produce as many emissions as the combustion of solid and liquid fossil fuels.

Figure 7: Electricity and heat production by fuel, EU, 1990 and 2020_(million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

Of the GHG emissions from fuel combustion by energy industries, more than four fifths is due to public electricity and heat production. Figure 7 compares, by type of fuel, the production of electricity and heat in 1990 and 2020. What the most remarkable is the increase by 13 % of the total production of electricity and heat, from 258 to 291 million tonnes of oil equivalent (MTOE). However, the energy sources that have contributed most to this increase in absolute terms are renewable ones with 80 MTOE, and gas with 38 MTOE.

Figure 7 also shows that the use of solid fuels and crude oil and petroleum products both decreased significantly from 1990 to 2020. 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, 1990-2020 (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 more than tripled. Whereas hydro-electric power was almost completely responsible for all renewable electricity generated in 1990 with 89 %, it generated just 29 % of the electricity in 2020. 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 2020 by 322 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 44 % in this source sector is the second 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, 1990-2020 (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 and recently due to COVID-19 pandemic. 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 before dropping gain due to COVID. 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, 1990 and 2020 (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 2020 the total final energy consumption by industry has fallen by 25 %. 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 three-quarters. This implies that fewer greenhouse gases from fuel combustion are emitted per unit of final energy consumption.

Households, commerce, institutions and others

GHG emissions from fuel combustion by households, commerce, institutions and others arise mainly in connection to space heating and warm water. They contributed with a fall of 215 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent to the overall reductions of GHG emissions (see Figure 5) mainly due to a change in the fuel mix used.

Figure 11: Household final energy consumption by fuel, EU, 1990-2020 (million tonnes of oil equivalent)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_c)

The relative drop in GHG emissions of 29 % over 1990 to 2020 (Figure 5) follows from a relatively stable downward trend (Figure 6). Fuel combustion born GHG emissions can be related to final energy consumption in households and commerce. Figure 11 shows the related changes in the final energy consumption of households between 1990 and 2020, 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 more than 70 % and the use of petroleum products halved. Households now use substantially more renewables, of which the use more than doubled, and more natural gas and electrical energy.

Transport-related emissions, including emissions from international aviation

The transport sector, including international aviation, is the only fuel combustion sub-sector, which shows an increase in GHG emissions over the last decades, as shown in Figure 5. Between 1990 and 2019, total GHG emissions increased by 33 %, or 241 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (see Figure 12). In 2020, GHG emissions from transport dropped by more than 200 million tonnes CO2-equivalent due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The volume of transport, measured as the amount transported times the distance, increased over the past decades (see Figure 13). Obviously, fuel efficiency has not improved substantially enough to offset the increase in transport volume.

Figure 12: Greenhouse gas emissions of transport, EU, 1990-2020 (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 10-15 % of the total GHG emissions of transport as reported here. 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, 1995-2019 (index 1995 = 100, based on tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres)
Source: DG MOVE Statistical Pocketbook 2021

The development in GHG emissions correlates closely with overall transport activity, also referred to as transport performance or transport volume, measured in tonne-kilometres and passenger-kilometres, see Figure 13. Note that these statistics are currently only available up to 2019. 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 significant mode of transport; more than 80 % of passenger transport performance and more than 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 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 favourable shift in the fuel mix as seen for the other sectors.[1]

To conclude this chapter on GHG emission from fuel combustion, energy mix changes seem to be the driving force behind the reduction in most fuel combustion sub-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 combustion.

Industrial processes and product use

The source sector 'industrial processes and product use' is responsible for approximately 9 % of total GHG emissions including international aviation (see Figure 4). Of the three non-energy source sectors, it has the largest absolute reduction in GHG emissions in 2020 compared with 1990, equal to 149 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (see Figure 5). This source sector represents a wide range of production processes and economic activities across different industries (see Table 1). Notably, this source sector excludes GHG emissions from fuel combustion (see above).

Table 1: Greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes and product use - selected sectors, EU, 1990 and 2020 (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 source sector. All production processes that traditionally had a large share in the total, namely mineral (cement, lime, glass), 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.

The complete 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 71 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 source sector will need to be reduced.

Agricultural emissions

Out of the total GHG emissions in 2020, around 11 % was emitted by the agricultural source sector (see Figure 4). Over the time span 1990 to 2020, the source sector reduced its emissions by 100 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent, which corresponds to -21 % compared with 1990 (see Figure 5). Figure 14 shows the GHG emissions in 1990 and 2020 for different agricultural activities.

Figure 14: Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, EU, 1990 and 2020 (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 47 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 22 % of the 1990 GHG emissions. The largest share of the GHG emissions due to enteric fermentation, 86 %, are from the digestive system of cattle. These emissions fell by 22 % over 30 years, but the decrease in GHG emissions primarily took place during the first decade. The emission reduction for the years 2001 to 2020 is equal to only 6 %, whereas there was a 8 % drop in the head count of bovine animals[2], which includes cattle, buffaloes and oxen (Figure 15). Data on bovine animals for the EU is not available for the years before 2001, because data for a few small countries is missing. However, 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, 2001-2021 (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 is almost twice 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 16 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent or 22 % (see Figure 14). 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, 2004-2019 (million tonnes)
Source: Eurostat (aei_pr_gnb)

Figure 16 shows the quantity of nitrogen from manure production over the 16 years up to 2019. 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 years. More detailed data from the GHG emission 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.

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; i.e. the deposit of waste into or onto land. The organic fraction of waste landfilled creates methane emissions.

In 2020, the share of waste management in total GHG emissions was just 3 % (see Figure 4). GHG emissions from waste management have been reduced by 60 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent. Although in absolute terms this source sector has the smallest reduction in GHG emissions, it managed to reduce its emissions by 35 % over the 30 years for which we have GHG emission inventories.

Figure 17: Greenhouse gas emissions of waste management, EU, 1990-2020 (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 45 million tonnes or 36 %. Waste water treatment reduced its GHG emissions by 48 %, but due to the smaller share in the total, this only amounts to 20 million tonnes.

Figure 18: Municipal waste treatment, EU, 2000-2020 (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.

Waste landfilling was reduced by more than half over the last decades. 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 services, 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 source sector of the GHG emission inventories, but in the energy source sector. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions from burning biomass are only included as a memo item in the GHG emission 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 almost tripled over 30 years.

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 2019 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 (LULUCF) is an overall sink of emissions

In addition to the sources of GHG emissions represented in Figure 4 and Figure 5, GHG emission inventories also include a source sector that is, overall, a sink of GHG emissions. This means that the GHG emissions recorded for this source sector are negative, because they are removed from the atmosphere. This source 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 (therefore Figure 1 shows two totals). On average, taking into account LULUCF decreases total GHG emissions by 6 - 7 %.

Until recently, LULUCF was excluded from the EU climate target (20 % reduction by 2020). The 2030 Target Plan fully integrates the LULUCF sector’s emissions and removals into the proposed 2030 EU greenhouse gas target of -55% (Article 4(1) of Regulation (EU) 2021/1119 establishing the framework for achieving climate neutrality and amending Regulations (EC) No 401/2009 and (EU) 2018/1999 (‘European Climate Law’)).

Figure 19: Greenhouse gas emissions from LULUCF (Land use, land use change and forestry), EU, 1990-2020 (million tonnes of CO2 equivalent)
Source: EEA, republished by Eurostat (env_air_gge)

Figure 19 shows, with a bold red line, the GHG emissions from total LULUCF, next to its components (areas). Of the different land use types, the only actual sink of GHG emissions in the EU GHG emission 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.

The new EU forest strategy for 2030 sets out how to protect and restore forests in the European Union, to ensure they continue to deliver their many services on which society depends. The Commission published a biodiversity strategy for 2030 as part of the European Green Deal, with the aim to put EU biodiversity on the path to recovery by 2030.

Figure 20: Forest area, EU, 1990-2020 (million hectares)
Source: Eurostat (for_area)

Forestry statistics show indeed that the total forest area within the EU has increased from 1990 to 2020, see Figure 20. Other wooded land has slightly decreased over the years, but overall the trend is still positive for the sum of both categories.

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, has decreased by 29.5 %, when comparing 2020 with 2008 (Table 2).

Estimating the emission intensities of economic activities requires emission data that is conceptually aligned to national accounts data. GHG emission 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 emission 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.[3] 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, 2020
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 emission 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, 2008 and 2020 (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 production 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. Other production activities with high GHG intensities are agriculture, forestry and fishing, water supply, sewerage, waste management and remediation activities and mining and quarrying. Service production activities emit much less GHG per euro of value added. In general, economic structural changes towards a bigger service sector implies fewer GHG emissions.

GHG footprint of EU consumption and investment

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 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 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 emission inventories and air emissions accounts.

Still, GHG footprints offer a valuable additional perspective to GHG emission 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: GHG footprint by product, EU, 2019 (million tonnes and percentage of total)
Source: Eurostat (env_ac_io10)

Table 3 presents the GHG footprint for most relevant products. The total EU GHG footprint is 3.7 billion tonnes. Of the total GHG emissions due to EU demand for products, 9.3 % of the emissions are caused by the final demand for food, beverages and tobacco products. It is followed by final demand for electricity, gas, steam and air conditioning and constructions and construction works with 8.9 % and 8.6 % respectively.

Figure 22: CO2 emissions — production and consumption perspective breakdown, EU, 2019 (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 due to EU final demand, and avoided emissions due to imports to meet EU final demand. By importing various goods and services from the rest of the world, the EU can be deemed to have ‘avoided’ 621 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 emissions embodied in exported products. Due to the difference in the emissions embodied in trade, the EU emits more GHG than is needed to produce the final demand of the EU itself, the difference being 96 million tonnes.

Not shown in the figure is the estimate of a total of 240 million tonnes of avoided emissions due to imports that are embodied in exports, as these are neither emitted in the EU, nor 'imported' to meet EU demand. They are an estimate of the emissions that merely pass through the EU.

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

Data sources

GHG emission inventories are taken from Eurostat's dataset Greenhouse gas emissions by source sector (env_air_gge). This dataset is originally produced and published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The EEA GHG emission 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 GHG emission 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 emission inventory as well as for the implementation of the quality assurance and quality control (QA/QC) procedures on the GHG emission inventories reported by the EU Member States, the United Kingdom 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 emission inventory. The Joint Research Centre is responsible for the QA/QC of the LULUCF and agriculture source sectors in the EU’s GHG emission inventory.

Data on transport performance is from the EU transport in figures Statistical Pocketbook 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 2019, 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 2019, 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, 2020
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 emissions 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 lifetime of the gases becomes available from scientific research. At this moment, the GWP values used to compile GHG emission inventories in Europe are taken from the Technical Summary [4] of the Fourth Assessment Report Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis of the IPCC. The EU has determined[5] that from 2023 GHG emission inventories will be reported based on the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report.[6].

All GHG totals in this article include indirect CO2 emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of biomass are recorded as memorandum item in GHG emission 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 emission 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 emission 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 emission 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 emission 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 components. The above table lists the main differences between GHG emission 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 emission 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 company, 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 emission inventory, but they are included in the air emissions accounts. For the EU as a whole, the differences between totals from the GHG emission 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. The target set for 2020 in the 2020 climate & energy package, a 20 % reduction of GHG emissions compared with 1990, was also met. The EU is working towards cutting 55 % 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.[7]

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 source sectors not included in the EU ETS and establishes binding annual GHG emission targets for the EU Member States for these source sectors.

For the commitment period from 2021-2030, two new Regulations have been adopted; 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.

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[8] of the EU Adaptation Strategy was published in November 2018. The European Commission will continue working on making Europe more climate-resilient.

In July 2021, the European Commission adopted a series of legislative proposals setting out how it intends to achieve climate neutrality in the EU by 2050, including the intermediate target of an at least 55 % net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The package proposes to revise several pieces of EU climate legislation, including the EU ETS, Effort Sharing Regulation, transport and land use legislation, setting out in real terms the ways in which the Commission intends to reach EU climate targets under the European Green Deal.

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. 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.
  2. GHG emissions from enteric fermentation of cattle and cattle manure management excludes buffaloes, which are reported under 'other livestock'.
  3. See also the Statistics Explained article 'Environmental accounts - establishing the links between the environment and the economy'.
  4. See Section TS.2.5, page 33-34 of the Technical Summary.
  5. See the Commission's Delegated Regulation 2020/1044
  6. 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.
  7. See the Commission's European Green Deal and the European Climate Law.
  8. The evaluation was published as a report on lessons learned and reflections on improvements for future action and an accompanying staff working document.