Transport emissions: Progress in the slow lane

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Many modern cars are designed to break speed limits by a significant margin, burning excess fuel. [The NRMA/Flickr]

I crashed my car the other day: mounted the curb, hit a rock, bent a wheel, rolled noisily to a nearby garage. The experience was a wake-up call. The European Commission’s approach to reducing road transport emissions could do with a similar shock, writes Chris Davies.

Chris Davies is a former member of the European Parliament (1999-2014) and an advisor to FleishmanHillard in Brussels.

The latest Berlaymont communication on low-emission mobility gives an impression of urgency.  Transport represents a quarter of EU greenhouse gas emissions, it says. By 2050, these need to be reduced by 60% compared to 1990 levels “and be firmly on the path towards zero”.

But Europe’s record on cutting transport emissions has not been a success story. Current trends, the Commission admits, will lead by 2020 to 12% lower emissions compared to 2005 rather than the 17-20% that’s needed.

What’s to be done? First, the executive should not assume that the magic solution is electrification. There’s a lot of life left in the internal combustion engine and no strong desire by consumers to make a switch.

Second, it should step up pressure on the manufacturers. Forcing the pace of CO2 reductions can deliver a win-win outcome, reducing fuel consumption and driving down costs while aiding the climate battle and boosting Europe’s economy.

Third, it should blow the dust off a historic document known as the Davies report, adopted by the European Parliament in October 2007. Its near decade-old recommendations still make sense today.

In writing it, my plan was to keep ambition high but give carmakers time to make adjustments at the lowest possible cost. With average CO2 emissions from new cars hovering then around 160g/km, the report called for binding requirements of 125g/km to be achieved by 2015.

The target was described by carmakers as unrealistically ambitious and by NGO Transport & Environment as “unacceptably weak”. With hindsight, it seems entirely reasonable.

In theory, average emissions from new cars today fall below the proposal. In practice, they are well above it. Certain vehicle manufacturers have taken advantage of loopholes in the test procedures to massage the figures. Their customers have not been told the truth about fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions.

My 2007 report called for tests to reflect real-world driving conditions. Nine years on, the European Commission now accepts that trust “may have been undermined”, but it will be 2017 before new procedures are introduced.

It also championed the revision of the 1999 Labelling Directive to give consumers more information and proposed an A-G format to compare vehicles’ fuel efficiency. This year the Commission concluded that revisions could indeed increase the legislation’s “relevance, effectiveness, efficacy and coherence”. Proposals for change are still awaited.

I called in the report for longer-term CO2 reductions to 95g/km by 2020 and 70g/km by 2025, and suggested a system of fines for manufacturers who breached the standards that found its way into the executive’s subsequent legislative proposal.

With the introduction of tougher tests, the current legal requirement of 95g/km by 2021 will have to be revised. Carmakers will need time to get up to speed. The European Commission should set aside the short-term and propose my 70g/km target for 2025. It is achievable and in step with the climate change aspirations of Paris.

Additionally, heavy-duty vehicles are the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector, generating 5% of the EU total. My report urged the Commission to put forward proposals for reducing these by 2009. The years have passed but we still don’t know when it will act. Legislation will not be easy but it’s scarcely credible that we can learn nothing from global experience.

Action is needed and maybe less testosterone rather than faster electrification. Far too many cars are designed to break speed limits by very substantial margins. Even when idling their engines burn more fuel than they need.

The draft of my 2007 report proposed that new cars should be type-approved for speeds no more than 25% above the usual legal maximum, say 162kph or 101mph. The blog posts went wild: maybe the idea posed a threat to manhood. Testosterone won and I lost the subsequent vote.

Technology may come to the rescue. Driverless cars and lorries will be with us before long. Their design is likely to emphasise safety, comfort and fuel efficiency rather than power. No-one is going to let a robot become a speed king.