EU greenhouse gases fell by 2.5 per cent in 2011

Coal and lignite consumption increased by 5.4 per cent in the EU in 2011. Seen here is Lippendorf power plant in northern Germany. Photo: stuck in customs/ / CC BY-NC-SA

A mild winter in 2011 and high prices for oil and gas have, despite an increase in the use of coal and lignite, put European Union greenhouse gas emissions back on a downward track.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the EU fell by 2.5 per cent in 2011 compared to the previous year, according to preliminary figures from the European Environment Agency (EEA). This means that emissions are once again falling after the 2.4 per cent increase in 2010.

In a Europe that has been shaken by economic crisis in recent years it is natural to assume that emission reductions are a result of decreasing economic activity. However a closer look at the economic development of individual member states and their emission trends in 2011 does not show such a clear link (figure 1). For example, Cyprus had a moderate increase in GDP but the greatest relative decline in emissions, while Bulgaria, which showed similar economic development, experienced an increase in emissions of more than 10 per cent. 

Figure 1 (above). GHG emissions and GDP growth, changes 2010–2011.

A better explanation for the 2011 downward emission trend is the mild winter in the northern and central parts of Europe that year, which led to a lower demand for heating. Actually over 90 per cent of the emission reductions occurred in just two sectors:

  • Residential and commercial (which to a large extent implies local heating of buildings) and
  • Energy industries (i.e. centralised production of electricity and district heating)

In south-eastern Europe, however, it was colder than usual, which in combination with a shift from nuclear to coal can explain the increase of emissions in Bulgaria. Another six countries (Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovenia), all new member states, increased their emissions in 2011. Besides low winter temperatures in parts of the region, high activity in the construction industry in several of the eastern member states also contributed to the increase in emissions, in particular from cement production. The United Kingdom was the member state with the largest absolute decrease, followed by France and Germany.

Figure 2 (right). Changes in total GHG emissions without LULUCF for the EU and its Member States, 2010–2011.

The majority of the member states are on track to meet their Kyoto targets for the commitment period 2008 to 2012. Exceptions are Italy and to a lesser degree Spain. Average emissions for Italy in 2009-2011 were 1.9 per cent lower than the base year, which can be compared with their burden-sharing target of -6.5 per cent. The gap shrinks partly, but not completely, when emission reductions due to land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) are included. Earlier, the Italian government announced that it will buy carbon credits corresponding to 0.4 per cent of its base year emissions, but EEA notes that this will not be enough to cover the gap. For Spain the gap is much smaller, at around 0.03 per cent of the base year, and this could be closed completely if for example emissions included in the European Trading Scheme (ETS) do not increase as expected.

This is not just a concern for Italy and Spain – if they fail to close these gaps by early 2015 it may prevent the EU15 from reaching its overall Kyoto target. Although the EU15 is on track for the common target of an 8 per cent reduction compared to 1990 levels, each country must also achieve their individual targets – surplus emission reductions in one country cannot automatically compensate for insufficient reductions elsewhere.

A much bigger challenge for most member states is the EU’s 20 per cent reduction target for 2020. Right now, six member states (Belgium, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Luxembourg and Malta) will have trouble achieving their commitments with present and planned measures. Another eight countries (Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Latvia and Slovenia) will probably not achieve their targets with existing measures, but are likely to manage if planned additional actions are taken.

In this context it is important to recall that even a 20 per cent GHG reduction by 2020 is far from enough to avoid dangerous climate change.

Examining trends for different fuels and other means of energy production helps to get a clearer picture of where greenhouse gas emissions are heading. The pattern for 2011 is, however, far from easy to interpret. The overall consumption of fossil fuels decreased by 2.4 per cent. This was mainly due to a fall in oil consumption and in western Europe a reduction in gas consumption as well. In addition to the mild winter, the main explanation is higher energy prices. For ordinary consumers the oil price rose by 10 per cent and in the case of crude oil the price increased by 35 per cent. Gas prices rose by an average of 8 per cent for households and by 14 per cent for industry (the increase was higher in the EU15 than in the new member states). The high price of gas and oil also contributed to a shift to solid fossil fuels (coal and lignite), which despite the overall reduction in fossil fuels increased by 5.4 per cent.

Despite the shutdown of eight nuclear power plants in Germany, the total production of nuclear electricity in the EU remained stable in 2011 compared to the previous year. This was due to increases in nuclear production in other countries, particularly France and the United Kingdom (which in past years have had several reactors turned off due to technical problems). Use of energy from renewable sources (hydropower included) increased by 2.6 per cent. The largest relative increases were recorded in Belgium (49%), United Kingdom (44%) and Ireland (41%).

Emissions from the agricultural sector decreased slightly in 2011, mainly because the total numbers of livestock dropped, which resulted in lower methane emissions from enteric fermentation and lower nitrous oxide emissions due to smaller amounts of manure.

In recent years the prices for carbon credits within the ETS have dropped to a record low. Not very surprisingly non-ETS sectors achieved larger emission reductions (-3.0%) compared to the sectors within the trading system (-1.8%).

Kajsa Lindqvist

Greenhouse gas emission trends and projections in Europe 2012 – Tracking progress towards Kyoto and 2020 targets, European Environment Agency,
Approximated EU GHG inventory: early estimates for 2011, European Environment Agency,


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