EU and climate change

The European Union is a party to both the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and the Paris Agreement. For the first commitment period of the KP (2008-2012) the EU15 took on a common target, to reduce emissions by 8 per cent compared to 1990. For the second commitment period of the KP (2013-2020) the EU27 have agreed to common emission reductions of 20 per cent compared to 1990 levels. This is equivalent to emission reductions of 13.2 per cent compared to 2005, which is used as the base year in internal EU communications. 

For the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol there is an option for parties to further step up their commitments. There are many who believe that the EU should make use of this possibility and set a target of 30 per cent emission reductions by 2020 compared to 1990 levels.  

For the internal allocation of emission reductions there are two different tools in use: The European Union Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) and the Effort Sharing Decision (ESD).

EU Emission Trading Scheme

The EU Emission Trading Scheme covers emissions from more than 11,000 power stations and industrial plants, and from 2013 emissions from aviation were included. About 40 per cent of the total EU emissions are covered in the scheme. Besides the EU27, Croatia, Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein are also part of the ETS. The legal basis for the trading system is the Emission Trading Directive (2003/87), adopted in October 2003.

When the ETS was launched in 2005, it was the first trading scheme for greenhouse gases. It builds on the principle of “cap and trade”.  A cap is set on emissions emitted from the participating installations over a specific period and a corresponding number of allowances are issued. These allowances are to a certain extent allocated for free and the rest are auctioned. The share of allowances that are auctioned is meant to increase over time. After acquiring allowances, parties are then free to trade them. 

The prices for allowances have fluctuated during the first two trading periods (2005-2008 and 2008-2012). Prices were down to €6-7 per tonne of carbon dioxide in 2012.

Effort Sharing Decision

The Council of Ministers agreed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol in April 2002. At the same time they decided on a legal framework for burden sharing among the member states for the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period (2008-2012), known as the Effort Sharing Decision (2002/358/EC). The decision only included the 15 states that were members at the time. 

In April 2009 all the 27 member states agreed to a new Effort Sharing Decision (406/2009/EC) for the period 2013-2020.

Other EU climate policy

In December 2008 the European Parliament adopted the Climate and Energy Package. The package contained the so-called 20-20-20 targets, which outline three main objectives for the climate and energy policy over the years to come:

  • cutting greenhouse gases by at least 20% of 1990 levels (30% if other developed countries commit to comparable cuts)
  • cutting energy consumption by 20% of projected 2020 levels – by improving energy efficiency
  • increasing use of renewables (wind, solar, biomass, etc) to 20% of total energy production (currently ± 8.5%)

In addition to stating the EU position on climate change negotiations in the following years, the agreements also paved the way for a number of directives and regulations:

  • The Energy Efficiency Directive (2012/27/EU), which was adopted in October 2012, stipulates that the EU’s energy use in 2020 must not exceed 1474 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of primary energy, or 1078 Mtoe of final energy (energy after transformation from its raw form). The directive does not require legally binding overall national targets.
  • The Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC), which was adopted in April 2009, aims to increase the share of renewable energy used within the European Union. Unlike the Energy Efficiency Directive all member states have individual binding targets for the share of energy from renewable sources in their gross energy use by 2020. Moreover, the share of energy from renewable sources in the transport sector must amount to at least 10% of final energy use in the sector by 2020.
  • The Carbon Capture and Storage Directive (2009/31/EC) lays down requirements for storage of carbon dioxide in the ground. 
  • The amendment of the Fuel Quality Directive (2009/30/EC) includes a requirement for fuel suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of energy supplied for road transport (Low Carbon Fuel Standard). The directive also introduces sustainability criteria for biofuels and mandated consideration for indirect land use change (ILUC).
  • The first binding limits for CO2 emissions from vehicles were agreed in 2009, when the EU set a legally binding CO2 standard for new cars (443/2009). In May 2011 a similar EU legislation for vans (510/2011) was passed. The CO2 emission standard for cars is designed to ensure that the average car sold in Europe by 2015 should emit no more than 130 g/km of CO2, and by 2020 no more than 95 g/km. The standard for vans will similarly ensure that CO2 emissions from new sales average 175 g/km by 2017.


Long-term policy plans

In March 2005 the EU Heads of State (European Council) endorsed – for the first time – the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees C over pre-industrial levels. A few years later, in October 2009, they committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2050. 

In 2009, the EU committed to limiting the average global temperature rise to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as unchecked climate change would erode the foundations of modern society. This commitment was reinforced and strengthened in 2015 by signing to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Focusing on the most important GHG, carbon dioxide (CO2), the Europe 2020 strategy aims to turn the EU into a so-called ‘low carbon’ economy based on renewable energy sources and energy efficiency.

In 2011 the Commission has presented a number of different strategy documents for future climate policy:

  • The Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050, which was launched by the commission in March 2011, includes an overall ambition for the EU by 2050 to cut domestic greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels and sets out milestones: reductions of the order of 40% by 2030 and 60% by 2040. Also presented is a scenario for how different sectors can contribute to emission reductions.
  • The Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area, presented in March 2011, is a plan for how the European transport system should be developed by 2050, including the aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the sector by at least 60 per cent compared to 1990 levels.
  • The Energy Roadmap 2050, which was presented by the Commission in December 2011, contains energy scenarios that describe how the EU could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95 per cent by 2050. Energy efficiency and an increased share of renewable energy are important components of the roadmap, as well as a continuation of the use of fossil gas and nuclear power.


The 2030 climate and energy framework

(source: Euro stat and European Commission)

The framework was adopted by EU leaders in October 2014. It builds on the 2020 climate and energy package and sets three key targets for the year 2030:

  • At least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels)
  • At least 27% share for renewable energy
  • At least 27% improvement in energy efficiency

The framework contains a binding target to cut emissions in EU territory by at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

To achieve the at least 40% target:

  • EU emissions trading system (ETS) sectors would have to cut emissions by 43% (compared to 2005) – to this end, the ETS is to be reformed and strengthened
  • non-ETS sectors would need to cut emissions by 30% (compared to 2005) – this needs to be translated into individual binding targets for Member States.

The framework sets a binding target at EU level to boost the share of renewables to at least 27% of EU energy consumption by 2030.

On the basis of the Energy Efficiency Directive, the European Council has endorsed an indicative energy savings target of 27% by 2030.

This target will be reviewed in 2020 having in mind a 30% target.

A transparent and dynamic governance process will be further developed to help deliver the Energy Union, including the 2030 climate and energy targets, in an efficient and coherent manner.

>> Further reading

Climate Action Network Europe, network of more than 140 environmental organisations, gives updated reports on EU climate and energy policy. (external link)

Transport & Environment, environmental umbrella organisation that describes and comments on current EU transport policy. (external link)

European Environment Agency. Regular reports on emissions in relation to set aims, especially of the Kyoto protocol. (external link)

Eurostat Information (external link)

European Commission (external link)