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EU can take the lead in reducing consumption-based emissions

A new SEI report reveals that the EU’s focus on territorial emissions understates the impact of its consumption globally. The study shows huge potential for the EU to raise the ambition of its climate action by addressing member states’ consumption-based emissions and lowering consumption overall.

Published on 18 June 2024
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Ulrika Lamberth /

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Between 1990 and 2020, the EU slashed its territorial emissions by 29%. Yet, its consumption-based CO₂ emissions (CBEs), which account for about 9% of global CO₂ emissions, disproportionately exceed its 5.7% share of the global population. A new study investigates the EU’s potential to lead global efforts in mitigating CBEs. It identifies three main barriers: the need for coordinated action among member states, the absence of standardized monitoring systems and the lack of transparency in global supply chains.

“By addressing these barriers, the EU has the potential to greatly boost climate action by decreasing consumption-based emissions and setting an example for other nations to follow”, says Katarina Axelsson, Senior Policy Fellow at SEI.

There is significant variation in the average consumption footprint among member states, ranging from 11.0 tons of CO₂ equivalent per person in Denmark and Luxembourg to 4.6 tons in Slovakia. This disparity underscores the difficulties that individual member states face in tackling emissions alone and highlights the potential benefits of EU-wide coordinated action. Case studies from Sweden, Denmark and France in 2021 reveal that a substantial portion of their CBEs stem from imports: 64% in Sweden, 56% in Denmark and 50% in France.

As population and prosperity grow in many member states, consumption rates naturally increase. However, improvements in production efficiency are not enough to offset the rise in CBEs.

“There is therefore a need for policies and measures to promote strong sustainability and focus on shifting consumption patterns, emphasizing not only production efficiency gains but to reduce consumption overall that generates emissions both in the EU and abroad. Both the EU and member states have a role to play in addressing consumption hotspots,” says Timothy Suljada, Head of Division Resources, Rights and Development.

Diagram over Carbon footprint EU member states 2021

Carbon footprint for all EU MS in 2021 and per categories of consumption.

European Commission, 2023

Food, housing and mobility are identified as the top three consumption hotspots across the EU. Meat and dairy products have the highest carbon footprint per person within the food category; households residing in single-family detached homes use more energy than those living in multi-family residential buildings; and gasoline- and diesel-powered cars produce the highest carbon emissions among transportation methods in the EU.

“Targeting the individual categories identified above and more uniformly applied pricing and standards could drive behaviour change, but it will also require oversight of the impacts on vulnerable groups”, says Jindan Gong, Research Associate at SEI.

To accelerate EU climate mitigation outcomes, the report authors argue that strategies and tools should:

  1. Acknowledge the significant role of household consumption in driving environmental issues.
  2. Expand policy measures that target household consumption and its impacts to shift and reduce consumption alongside efficiency measures. This includes implementing uniform carbon pricing and establishing standards to restrict the carbon footprints of products and services.
  3. Use consistent, standardized and reliable metrics across national boundaries to identify and measure meaningful and actionable areas of consumption.
  4. Set definitive targets for CBEs at the EU level to increase the political support for measures targeting consumption-based emissions and strengthening legislation at both EU and member state level.
  5. Enhance transparency of trade flow data with EU trading partners to track the environmental and other impacts of imported goods and services, targeting consumption hotspots such as food, housing and mobility.

For further information, please contact:

Katarina Axelsson, Senior Policy Fellow, Stockholm Environment Institute, [email protected], + 46 73 707 85 77

Ulrika Lamberth, Senior Press Officer, Stockholm Environment Institute, [email protected], + 46 73 801 70 53

Katarina Axelsson
Katarina Axelsson

Senior Policy Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Timothy Suljada high res
Timothy Suljada

Head of Division: Resources, Rights and Development

SEI Headquarters

Jindan Gong
Jindan Gong

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Read the report and policy brief

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