European Union


Increasingly ambitious targets and policy instruments have strengthened the credibility of the EU’s ambitions to be a leader on climate policy change. While significant progress has been made towards emissions reductions, renewable energy, and energy efficiency targets, EU’s climate and energy policy has hardly been a game changer in the sense of moving towards a collective low-emissions economy in the EU.

By Dragana Davidovic


  • A supranational economic and political union of 28 member states
  • Still aspires to decarbonize Europe by 2050 and to be a leader-by-example in international climate negotiations and climate policy change
  • Energy consumption in the EU is down to its early 1990s level  
  • Energy dependence was at 53 per cent of total consumption in 2013


Based on the new (2015) book The Domestic Politics of Global Climate: Key Actors in International Climate Cooperation edited by Guri Bang, Arild Underdal and Steinar Andresen and the chapter EU climate and energy policy: demanded or supplied? By Jon-Birger Skjærseth.

Key Facts

The EU is the world’s third largest CO2-emitter, with 3.4 billion metric tons emitted in 2013, accounting for about 10 per cent of the world total. Per capita emissions are estimated to 6.8 tons CO2, although this number varies between EU’s member states. Since the 1990’s the EU has aspired to take a leadership role in international climate change negotiations. In 2014, a target was set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030 – a part of EU’s trajectory towards between an 80 and 95 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, compared to 1990-levels. Within this context the union has adopted three short-term targets: to cut GHG emissions, increase the share of renewables in energy consumption and energy efficiency by 20 per cent by 2020. While these targets were followed by a package of binding climate and energy policies, long-term EU targets are not yet legislated or binding.   

In 2013, energy consumption of oil and petroleum products reached a record low since 1990, but they are still the most important source of energy with a 30.1 per cent share of total energy consumption. Fossil fuels together account for 72.2 per cent, while renewables reaching record high levels in the same year account for 12.6 per cent of the energy consumed. Nuclear energy (29 per cent) accounted for the largest share of EU’s domestic energy production, followed by renewables (24 per cent), solid fuels (20 per cent), gas (17 per cent), oil (9 per cent) and non-renewable wastes (1 per cent). In total, the EU produced 709Mtoe energy in 2013, leaving it dependent on energy imports for 53 per cent of its total consumption. GHGs emissions have declined, while consumption of renewable energy has increased alongside energy savings.

Policy Supply and Demand

In 1991, the EU unsuccessfully tried to adopt a package of climate and energy policies based on energy (CO2)-pricing, renewables and energy efficiency. Since then, many climate-related initiatives have seen the light of day. In 2008, a Climate and Energy Package was adopted to attain the 2020 targets adopted in 2007. The main legislation was a revised EU Emissions Trading System (ETS), an Effort Sharing Decision covering non-ETS sectors, the Renewable Energy Directive and the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Directive. EU climate policies enjoyed strong public support, following the increased attention to climate change in Europe from 2006 and onwards.

In 2014, a new Climate and Energy Policy Framework for 2030 was adopted, representing a “re-packing” compromise to satisfy the main veto players, including extensive concessions given to Poland and other Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs). The new goals are to reduce GHG emissions by at least 40 per cent, and to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy consumption by 27 per cent respectively – all by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. Part of the agreement is to strengthen the EU’s ETS by lowering the cap from 2021. Emissions are set to be cut by 43 per cent in the ETS sector and by 30 per cent in the non-ETS sectors compared to 2005-levels, by continued effort sharing among the member states.

Drivers and Barriers

The main driver for the EU to provide gradually more ambitious climate policies and policy instruments is to strengthen the credibility of its leader-by-example ambition in international climate negotiations. Still, there are a few barriers towards EU’s goal of becoming a collective low-carbon economy. One barrier is the different interests of member states. Member states heavily reliant on fossil fuels are mostly concerned about energy security. These states oppose stringent EU climate policies that might threaten coal or shale gas exploration and force them to invest in more expensive renewable energy sources.

The political system of the EU is very complex and different from other political systems – in how governments supply policies, how society demands policies, and how these demands are channeled. While EU’s institutional setting provides an enabling context by stimulating consensus seeking and long-term policy making, a major obstacle has been getting the new low-income member states, including CEECs, to agree on a more ambitious climate policy.   


The Future

Significant progress has been made towards meeting the 2020 targets, but progress in the member states has been uneven. The Climate and Energy Package has hardly been a game changer in the sense of putting the EU collectively on a new green path towards decarbonization. Whether the new 2030 Climate and Energy Framework will succeed in achieving a low-emissions economy depends on the development of new binding legislation that needs to be implemented by the member states, and on economic and technological changes unrelated to this policy. These factors will largely determine whether the new 40 per cent reduction in GHG emissions will be met.