An Introduction to the European Union Part I

Before taking the deep dive into European politics by examining the domestic implementation challenges for greenhouse gas reductions within the European Union (EU), I thought it would be appropriate to begin with a series of posts examining some of  the basic facts about the EU’s role on the global stage, and some of the realities that shape the internal climate change debate. This post relies draws heavily on colorful graphs and statistics, so if you are a fan of either, keep reading!

EU on the World Stage

Responsible for over 11% of annual global CO2 emissions, the European Union (27) is the third largest emitter in the world after the US and China. Relative to its population of 500 million people, less than 7% of the world’s population, the EU accounts for a disproportionately high level of emissions: in 2011 it emitted around twice the amount of CO2 as India (3790000 KTons CO2, as compared to  India’s 1970000 Ktons CO2) yet had less than half the population size!

Although accounting for a large share of the world’s annual emissions, the EU has made significant steps toward reducing its emissions. This reduction is due, at least in part, to a series of climate change policies, including an emissions trading system, directives aimed at increasing the share of renewable energy in electricity production, and emissions targets  for automobiles. Other factors, such as the financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing reduction in economic output, may account for some of the variation (see right side of graph), and may  obscure the true impact of these policies.

 Looking within the EU

When looking within the EU, there are three important facts to keep in mind when examining emissions reductions potentials.

#1 Two sectors account for almost 80% of Emissions

Within the EU, two sectors dominate the emissions scene: Energy and Transport. In 1990 the two sectors accounted for 77.1% of total emissions, in 2010, they accounted for 79.7% of total emissions. While Energy, as a share of emissions marginally decreased, Transport increased roughly 6% over the same time period. Because they account for such a large portion of emissions totals, they provide the greatest opportunity for reductions potential. The interesting question, however, is to what extent emission reductions within these sectors are possible.

 Source: Eurostat 

 #2 Six Countries Account for ~70% of Annual CO2 Emissions

 Twenty seven countries make up the EU, but the top six emitters account for roughly 70% of annual CO2 emissions. In order, they are:  Germany, accounting for 19.84% of emissions; the United Kingdom (12.5%); France (11.07%); Italy (10.62%); Poland (8.49%); and Spain (7.54%). The remaining 21 countries — with the exception of the Netherlands (4.45%) — only contribute on the order of 1-2% to the total annual emissions. Because they offer the greatest potential for reductions, future posts will examine the six largest emitting countries in greater detail.

#3 Great Variation in Energy Intensity of Economy

One final point: average emissions do not capture diversity within the EU, nor does it capture the extent to which energy is important to the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country within the EU. The following chart  provides a nice visual representation of  how diverse European countries are in terms of how energy intensive their economies are. Eastern European countries have dramatically reduced the amount of energy required to produce a unit of GDP, however, it is clear that their economies, relative to Eastern and Northern Europe, are still wildly dependent on energy for economic output. This explains, in part, their resistance to adopting more rigorous standards. Poland is of particular importance in this regard: not only is it one of the major emitters within the EU, but it has a very energy intensive of economy. It has proved to be a formidable veto-player within the EU on climate change issues, and will figure prominently in future posts.

Energy Intensity of Economy – kg of oil equivalent per EUR 1 000 of GDP


The goal of this post was to introduce basic facts about the EU on the world stage, and basic points about the situation within the EU. Future posts will focus on the largest emitters within the EU, the largest emissions sectors, and the most energy intensive economies within the EU. While the EU has made progress on emissions reductions, there is space for improvement. Stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *