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Two steps forward. One step back. The EU journey to zero emissions in transport.

Two steps forward. One step back. The EU journey to zero emissions in transport.

My first transport blog of the year is a good opportunity to review the question I posed last year, namely ‘is the EU taking the decarbonisation of transport seriously enough?.

I posed the question in light of the evidence that the transport sector has not witnessed the same gradual decline in emissions we have seen in other sectors. Indeed, emissions from transport in 2016 were 26 % above 1990 levels. Within this sector, road transport is by far the biggest emitter accounting for more than 70% of all GHG emissions from transport in 2014. The figure below illustrates the rise in transport emissions set against the targets set out in 2011 transport White Paper.


Source: European Environment Agency

So a very bleak prognosis. But the good news is there is at last significant evidence that the EU is starting to take the challenge seriously.

Late last year, the European Commission published of a strategic long-term vision for a ‘prosperous, modern, competitive and climate neutral economy by 2050 – A Clean Planet for all.’ It argues the only way to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement is to end carbon emissions from transport by 2050.

A remarkably bold and radical aim, but one that has generated surprisingly little attention. Maybe it’s to far off. Maybe nobody believes the EU. Maybe it’s just plain good sense. Either way it represents probably the most important change in transport policy at an EU level since the creation of the Single Market. So important in fact, that it’s worth quoting the commitment in full.

‘Roll out carbon-free, connected and automated road-transport mobility; promote multi-modality and shifts towards low-carbon modes such as rail and waterborne transport; restructure transport charges and taxes to reflect infrastructure and external costs; tackle aviation and shipping emissions using advanced technologies and fuels; invest in modern mobility infrastructure and recognise the role of better urban planning; Moving away from fossil fuels and the combustion engine in transport means avoiding catastrophic climate change and gaining cleaner air, energy independence, greater competitiveness and a huge research and industry advantage.’

This will really require a transport revolution, and will need to see tangible signs that EU Member States in particular are willing turn those fine words into deeds and legislation. But to be fair the process is already beginning with two major steps forward.

First, the proposals to require huge cuts of CO2 from the all-important road sector by 2030. Late last year the European Parliament, Commission and Council already agreed strong rules to decarbonise and modernise cars and light vans. They provisionally agreed on new CO2 emission standards for the period after 2020, emissions from new cars will have to be 37.5% lower in 2030 compared to 2021 and emissions from new vans will have to be 31% lower.

For heavy duty vehicles, buses and coaches MEPs have already stated their support for a 20% reduction in truck CO2 in 2025, compared to the Council’s proposed 15% reduction. MEPs also want, at least, a 35% reduction in 2030, compared to 30% demanded by the Council. A deal has to be struck, and it looks like we are on course to witness a deal in a few weeks time that will deliver a reduction of between 30 to 35% in just 11 years. Vital if this key part of the EU’s mobility package is to be a real stepping stone towards the modernisation of the European mobility sector, preparing it for climate neutrality in the second half of the century.

Second, the EU played an instrumental role in making the Paris Agreement operational at COP24. The UN climate conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, concluded with the adoption of a clear rulebook to make the Paris Agreement on climate change work in practice across the world. The completion of the rulebook was the EU’s top objective in these negotiations. The Paris rulebook will enable the Parties to the Paris Agreement to implement, track and progressively enhance their contributions to tackling climate change, in order to meet the Agreement’s long-term goals, and play a key role in ensuring transport contributes to meeting the internationally agreed goals of keeping global temperature increase to below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.

But a major step back is the continuing lack of action on shipping and aviation emissions. Shipping emissions are predicted to increase between 50% and 250% by 2050, and aviation emissions are forecast to grow by a further 300-700% by 2050. In the coming year we need to see the EU step up its leadership role in the United Nations agencies, the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization to ensure shipping and aviation play their full role in meeting the 2050 goal of zero-emissions.

So yes, the EU is at last beginning to take the decarbonisation of transport seriously, but it is a case of two steps forward and one step back. After this year’s European Parliament elections and the appointment of a new European Commission, we need an ambitious new EU work programme. One which builds of the regulations to curb CO2 emissions from the road sector by 2030 by rolling them forward to 2050, extending them to sea and air, and facilitating the global leadership the EU’s global leadership role in developing the technology to make this happen.

LP Brussels
LP Brussels