Bursting the Bubble

The Commission’s Transport Decarbonisation Communication

29 September 2016 | by

Environment has become a big topic in the public sphere. From agriculture to energy production, we care about how what we use is being produced. We know public awareness efforts are paying off as well; all industries have notably reduced their impact on the planet, even if not at the pace we would want them to. However there is one exception to the rule – the transport sector. This is why we witnessed the release of the Transport Decarbonisation Communication that aims to change the situation.

It is worth noting that Communications are not legally binding. They don’t have the power to compel EU Member States to act in a particular way. However, they are used to indicate Commission’s position on an issue and its future plans.

Transport sector’s greenhouse gas output is not news. It is the only sector that hasn’t reduced its pollution levels below those of 1990, the yardstick by which decarbonisation efforts are measured. However, many seem to agree that the true catalyst for the effort being exerted today is not because of sudden change of heart but rather the Volkswagen revelations.

In defence of the transport sector, at least to some extent, it is fighting an uphill battle. Bigger planes and trains, faster cars, and cheaper travel means we are travelling faster and further than ever before. It is a constant battle between improving emission standards and rising levels of demand. Yet it is precisely because of the growing demand, in addition to cheating by manufacturers, that the Commission is taking action.

The core of the Transport Decarbonisation Communication consists of three aims: achieving higher efficiency levels in transport systems, introducing low-emission alternative energy sources for transport, and increasing the number of low as well as zero emission vehicles. Since almost a quarter of all the greenhouse emissions produced are coming from transport, ultimately the goal is to reduce of transport emissions by 60% below 1990 levels.

To achieve this lofty ambition the Communications paper wants to see ‘smarter’ transport; entire fleets of high-tech cars that will make traffic flow smoother and transition from one mode of transport to another in a simpler way. It wants to put financial pressure through taxation to ensure that we pay for the pollution we generate when travelling. Long trips should be made using low polluting transport like trains and road transport should be employed only at the last leg of the trip.

To break our dependence on oil as the basis for the fuel we use, the Commission sees a biofuel based mid-term future. This would let the continent to cut emission without forcing everyone to buy new cars. Food based fuels are no longer an option and ‘advanced’ biofuels will be promoted to speed up the transition, in addition to the roll-out of charging points for electric vehicles.

However, better fuel efficiency and alternative fuels will only get us so far. We need to ensure that cars are actually improving efficiency levels and we must avoid another Volkswagen scandal through better testing methods to verify the promised emission levels. Eventually we would still need to see an extensive deployment of electricity-based vehicles to reach our emission goals, which can be done in part by using favourable taxation system to steer the industry and consumer in the right direction.

While the ideas contained in the Communication are certainly good and perfectly achievable given enough time and resources, it is worth noting a few shortcomings. Firstly, while hybrid cars are certainly an option, Commission wants to see an all-electric future and fast. We need to consider where that electricity will come from. Sudden increase in the number of electric cars may not match the speed at which we increase the amount of renewable energy we produce, slowing down the mothballing of old polluting power plants, despite EU’s best legislative efforts.

Secondly, electric cars are expensive and biofuels are thin in availability across Europe. Without a price cuts, a good amount of charging points around cities and a steady supply of biofuels that are low-carbon there will be no gains. Recent biofuel related experiences also dictate that the Commission may not have the necessary understanding of biofuels to make this a reality.

This paper has also been faulted by multiple stakeholders due to lacking a call for action on aviation and maritime sector. This is in addition to the management of those sectors being relegated to International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation respectively. It is currently hard to speculate how these organisations will fair, especially with on-going negotiations on aviation emissions that are already losing momentum with standards being watered down.

Despite the criticisms, the paper does set a clear path.

Whether this vision will succeed or fail will depend on the legislative proposals that will follow the Communication and how stringent these will be. Clashes with the transport industry are inevitable and in the end the success of this vision will depend on how much the Commission is willing to ruffle the feathers of the transport industry representatives and Member States.

What do you think?