EU climate change policies


The EU has implemented a range of policies to combat climate change and deliver on its Kyoto target of 8% CO2 reductions by 2012. As the negotiations for a new climate treaty continue, the EU is now implementing a set of new policies to reach its 2020 goals.

A growing body of scientific literature shows that climate change is happening and that it is influenced by human activities that have led to a marked increase in greenhouse gas emissions since pre-industrial times.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN scientific body, pointed out that 11 of the twelve years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the warmest 12 years on record.

Since the early 1990s, climate change has been moving up the international and European political agenda. The political consensus is that global temperature rises should be limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid potential catastrophic consequences: heatwaves, floods, storms, etc.

To provide an international framework for stabilising greenhouse gas emissions, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature in 1992 and entered into force in March 1994.

Under the convention, an international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in December 1997. It sets binding emission reduction targets for industrialised countries and creates three 'flexible mechanisms' to help lower the costs of reducing emissions: the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and Emissions Trading.

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February 2005 without being ratified by the US. The withdrawal from the treaty by President George W. Bush in 2001 was a major setback as it effectively left one of the world's biggest emitters without any climate commitments.

In the context of the Kyoto Protocol, the EU-15 committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to 8% below 'base year' 1990 levels before 2012, while 10 out of the 12 new member states negotiated their own targets individually.

Since the late 1990s, the EU has committed to playing a global leadership role as regards the fight against global warming.

After the US government decided to withdraw from Kyoto, the EU used all its diplomatic power to ensure that other countries – in particular Russia – stuck to their word. It succeeded in getting enough countries to sign.

The European Climate Change Programmes (ECCPs)

The first ECCP was launched in 2000 to ensure that the EU meets its emissions reduction target under the Kyoto Protocol. The ECCP is a stakeholder structure under which the European Commission debates with industry and NGOs and prepares new measures to fight climate change.

The ECCP identified and implemented around 30 measures. These included the establishment of an EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS), a directive on promoting electricity from renewable sources, a directive on promoting biofuels for transport and a framework for setting eco-design requirements for energy-using products. 

ECCP II started in 2005 with the aim of reviewing progress and providing guidance on additional measures needed to meet the EU's Kyoto commitments. It focused on carbon capture and storage (CCS), including the aviation sector in the EU ETS and adaptation policies.

Energy and climate package

In 2007, EU leaders endorsed a set of new climate targets for 2020: cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below 1990 levels, sourcing 20% of the bloc's energy consumption from renewable energies and reducing energy consumption by 20%.

In December 2008, the EU agreed on a wide-ranging 'energy and climate package' to meet the 2020 goals. It included:

  • A revision of the ETS from 2013;
  • an "effort-sharing decision" on emissions cuts from sectors outside the ETS;
  • a new Renewable Energy Directive, and;
  • a legal framework for developing carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Kyoto commitments on track

A 2010 progress report released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) estimated that the EU-15 have cut their average annual greenhouse gas emissions by 253 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent beyond what would be required to meet their collective 8% target during 2008 and 2009. The EU is therefore set to "reach and even overachieve its target," the Agency said.

The optimistic estimates are largely due to the economic downturn, as emissions dropped by 6.9% between 2008 and 2009, the EEA argued.

In addition, 10 out of the 12 EU states that joined later took on individual targets of 6% or 8%. The EEA said nine of these countries were on track towards their Kyoto targets without needing to buy carbon credits or use carbon sinks, while Slovenia would get there with its current plans to use such flexible instruments.  

As part of the negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, the EU has pledged to increase its 2020 emissions reduction target to 30% if other countries commit to comparable measures.

The European Commission argues that the cost of meeting the EU's current 2020 emission reduction target have fallen by nearly a third in the wake of the economic downturn. This would make raising the target to 30% affordable.

"Whether to increase our reduction target for 2020 from 20% to 30% is a political decision for the EU leaders to take when the timing and the conditions are right. Obviously the immediate political priority is to handle the crisis. But as we exit the crisis, the Commission has now provided input for a fact-based discussion," said Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.

BusinessEurope, the European business lobby, argues that climate change can only be tackled globally.

"We are [...] convinced that any further increase of the EU's unilateral 20% emission reduction target at this point in time would be unlikely to convince other nations to adopt comparable targets. Furthermore, it would send the wrong signal to European industry in times of economic crisis," said Jürgen R. Thumann, BusinessEurope's president.

The Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), a Brussels-based think-tank, argues that the legal form of a future climate treaty, whether a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol or a single legally-binding agreement, may have little impact on whether countries meet their targets under it.

"As far as the pledges are hooked to an international accord on the one hand, and substantiated in domestic legislation on the other – not necessarily legally binding in domestic law but enforceable with sufficient resources available – they could increase the credibility of the parties' commitments," it said in a policy brief. 

Oxfam advocates ensuring that any climate aid to developing countries is additional to existing development aid commitments and comes from public sources. 

"Only public funding can reach the most vulnerable communities struggling to adapt to climate change, and help poor countries adopt low carbon growth strategies," said David Waskow, climate change advisor for Oxfam. "And governments must make sure this funding is additional to existing aid targets – poor countries should not be forced to choose between building flood defences and building schools."

The Climate Policy Tracker by Green group WWF and consultancy Ecofys found that on average, EU countries need to intensify their efforts by a factor of three to reduce emissions 80-95% by 2050 as as required by science.

"There are success stories in each country and policymakers should learn from best practices across Europe. Overall, however, the ratings are low. Support for renewable energy is most widely implemented across Europe and shows the most progress, whilst energy efficiency, transport and industry are lagging behind," said Niklas Höhne, director of energy and climate policy at Ecofys. 

  • June 2000: Commission launches first European Climate Change Programme (ECCP I).
  • Feb. 2005: Kyoto Protocol enters into force.
  • Jan. 2005: Start of the EU's greenhouse gas Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).
  • Oct. 2005: Launch of second European Climate Change Programme (ECCP II).
  • March 2007: EU summit endorses proposal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020.
  • Dec. 2007: UNFCCC conference in Bali (COP-13) launches negotiations on post-Kyoto framework.
  • Dec.2008: EU agrees climate and energy package, endorsing targets for a 2020 greenhouse gas reduction by 2020.
  • Dec. 2009: UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen (COP-15) produces Copenhagen Accord.
  • 29 Nov.- 10 Dec. 2010: UNFCCC conference in Cancún (COP-16).
  • 28 Nov.-9 Dec. 2011: UN climate conference in South Africa (COP17). Possible date for agreeing new international climate treaty.
  • End 2012: Kyoto Protocol expires.
  • 2020: Target date to achieve the EU's objective to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.


Life Terra

Funded by the LIFE Programme of the EU

The content of this publication represents the views of the author only and is his/her sole responsibility. The Agency does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.

Subscribe to our newsletters