This article is part of our special report Road transport.
After a year of being dogged by the dieselgate scandal, the European road transport sector has started soul searching prompted by new EU plans to reduce carbon emissions.
“The black cloud of dieselgate emissions still hangs over us, both literally and figuratively. It is time for the transport sector to regain our trust,” Geneviève Pons-Deladrière, director of the World Wildlife Fund’s EU office, told a Brussels conference yesterday (27 September).
Pons-Deladrière told the room full of lobbyists she thinks the European Commission’s two-month old strategy to slash CO2 emissions from the transport sector is “very good”.
“It doesn’t happen often that a green NGO says so,” she added.
The European Commission has been under pressure to slash emissions from the transport sector. Transport is the only sector in the EU where greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise— industry and housing, for example, have both cut their carbon emissions levels. The European Commission promised a 60% cut in transport emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.
Manufacturers, logistics firms, fuel industry lobbyists and environmental campaigners squabbled over the Commission’s plans, which include one bombshell: a promise to introduce the first EU-wide standard limiting truck emissions, as well as indications of incentives for alternative fuels and low and zero-emission vehicles.
But the industry does not have much to latch onto: the proposals will trickle out of the Berlaymont over the next few years. For now, manufacturers may be eager to see details of the plans, but they are still in the dark.
Truck emission limits
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU climate commissioner, insisted the Commission does not know much more than the companies about its plans to rein in truck emissions.
“Our proposal will not be a copy and paste of solutions that have previously been adopted by others. Nothing has been decided yet,” Cañete said.
Car industry association ACEA warned last week that the Commission should finish developing a digital tool to measure truck emissions before it proposes a binding limit. The executive has been working on the VECTO tool since 2010. Sources involved in discussions about VECTO say it measures CO2 emissions by configuring various dimensions and characteristics of trucks, and does not just monitor the engine.
Some manufacturers said they will not push back against a new EU-wide standard because they are used to complying with similar rules in countries outside the bloc.
“We are in the US, in Japan and in China,” said Martin Lundstedt, the CEO of Volvo group, speaking at a panel discussion at yesterday’s conference.
“VECTO is the most innovative way of looking at the full vehicle in use, in life, to drive down CO2. If we have an engine-only standard that would be for the 20th century. We are in the 21st century and we need to move along here,” he added.
Environmental campaigners have focused on the EU’s delay in applying a standard for truck emissions as a failure compared to countries that already have limits. EU and national regulators have also come under fire for failing to catch Volkswagen’s emissions cheating in passenger cars—the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency first caught the scandal, igniting criticism of EU authorities’ ability to police manufacturers.
Ulf Björnholm, head of the EU office for the United Nations Environment Programme, called the Commission’s plans to cut emissions from transport “inward looking”. The failure to stop the dieselgate scandal showed the EU fell behind on limiting harmful emissions, he added.
“The thinking and policies that are underway now in China and even India , they’re about introducing mandatory quotas. For every car you produce you need to produce X amount of electric cars. That’s a very very hard regulatory policy. But I don’t think there’s room for the EU to be complacent about this,” Björnholm said.
But others cautioned that dieselgate and the Commission’s new plans to slash carbon emissions could quickly give way to an overzealous reaction against the industry.
“I’m worried the policy answer will be to say we have to do more and more with less transport,” said Christofer Fjellner, a Swedish MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
“Pretty often the European Commission does impact assessments, it takes ages, then it hits the floor in the European Parliament and member states and we mess things up. I’m worried people will say it’s not enough to reduce emissions, we have to reduce transport as well,” Fjellner added.
More than two-thirds of carbon emissions from transport come from the road sector. The shipping industry could be hard hit by the Commission’s plans as well: around 75% of all freight shipped in Europe is sent via road transport.
Peter Harris, director of sustainability for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for shipping giant UPS called the growing demand for more transport a “market opportunity” but said that created a big challenge for cutting emissions from the sector.
“This is not a simple engineering fix,” Harris said.
Transport is responsible for around a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second biggest greenhouse gas emitting sector after energy.
Road transport alone contributes about one-fifth of the EU's total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas.
While emissions from other sectors are generally falling, those from transport have continued to increase until 2008 when transport emissions started to decrease on the back of oil prices, increased efficiency of passenger cars and slower growth in mobility.
Trucks, buses and coaches produce about a quarter of CO2 emissions from road transport in the EU, and some 5% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions – a greater share than international aviation or shipping, according to the European Commission.
Despite some improvements in fuel efficiency, CO2 emissions from Heavy Duty Vehicles (HDVs) rose by some 36% between 1990 and 2010, mainly due to increasing road freight traffic.
In May 2014, the European Commission set out a strategy to curb CO2 emissions from HDVs over the coming years. It is the EU’s first initiative to tackle such emissions from trucks, buses and coaches.
The Commission said it intends to propose legislation in 2015 which would require CO2 emissions from new HDVs to be certified, reported and monitored.
European Commission: Decarbonisation of transport strategy (July 2016)