Passengers, polluters will pay for green transport, says EU

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The European Commission has drawn up a plan to cut planet-warming transport emissions to "at least 60%" of 1990 levels by 2050, but environmentalists say it lacks urgency – and travellers and transport companies alike will foot the bill.

A draft copy of the much-anticipated White Paper on Transport, dated 21 February and obtained by EurActiv, flags several measures to raise the €1.8 trillion which the EU says is needed for infrastructure investment in the next 20 years.

Another €500 billion will be needed to complete the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T).

These funds should be raised from diversified public and private sources, and wider application of the 'user pays' and 'polluter pays' principles.

"Member states need to ensure that sufficient national funding is available in their budgetary planning," the Commission cautions.

But centrally, the paper advises the EU and governments to select policy frameworks "relying to the greatest extent possible on market-based mechanisms".

Thorny questions

Questions about who should pay most for the electrification of private and public transport, high-speed rail networks and greater use of alternative fuels may prove thorny.

"Wider socio-economic benefits and positive externalities justify some level of public funding," the document says, "but in the future, transport users are likely to pay for a higher proportion of the costs than today".

Said el-Khadraoui, a Belgian Socialist MEP and member of the European Parliament's transport committee, had not seen the White Paper.

But he told EurActiv that making polluters pay most for decarbonisation carried greater incentives to change planet-harming behaviour.

"There's also a social element to this," he said. "Transport has to remain available to ordinary people. There are mechanisms that can combine a good efficient market system with allowing certain categories of person to travel."

But he conceded that "maybe in the long run we should travel less. That could be a consequence of our policies because there are limits to what we can do".

The White Paper itself argues that "curbing mobility is not an option".

But Jos Dings, director of the Transport & Environment environmental group, described this language as both "incompetent" and "unacceptable".

"How on Earth are you going to solve congestion if you're not willing to curb mobility where there's too much?" he asked.

More generally, the paper contained "quite a few nice words but not enough commitments," he said. "It doesn't have enough sense of urgency to take measures in the short term to address the twin challenges of climate change and energy dependence."

In the long term, the indicative targets for arriving at the -60% emissions reduction target were "magical" and lacking any realistic action plan, he added.

Mulling new financial instruments

Road charges are being "increasingly considered" for passenger cars as a way of generating revenues and influencing traffic and travel behaviour, according to the White Paper, and the Commission will develop guidelines for these.

Rules are already in place for heavy goods vehicles under the Eurovignette directive.

"The long-term goal is to apply user charges to all vehicles and on the whole network to reflect at least the maintenance cost of infrastructure, congestion, air and noise pollution," the White Paper reads.

Initiatives proposed to spread the use of clean cars include: linking vehicle taxes to environmental performance, revising favourable company car taxation and harmonising VAT levels on EU cross-border passenger transport.

New financial instruments such as EU project bonds are also backed to stimulate public-private sector funding partnerships.

Phasing out conventional vehicles

By 2030, a halving of the use of 'conventional' cars (non-hybrids using internal combustion engines) in urban areas is forecast, to "achieve essentially CO2-free city logistics".

By 2050, the White Paper foresees environmentally-unfriendly vehicles being phased out.

New standard-setting is also proposed for vehicular CO2 emissions, noise levels, energy efficiency, refuelling infrastructures, and road test cycles.

While aviation does not take centre stage in the document, an increase in low-carbon aviation fuels to 40% of the total by 2050, and a 40% reduction of maritime bunker fuel emissions, is outlined.

Other Commission objectives include: the full deployment of SESAR air traffic management infrastructure by 2020, a fully functional and EU-wide inter-modal TEN-T core network by 2030, and the shifting of 30% of road freight travelling over 300km to rail, waterborne or other forms of transport by 2030, rising to 50% by 2050.

The White Paper had been expected to be released early next month along with the Commission's energy efficiency plan and 2050 roadmap to a low-carbon future.

But it was reportedly too bulky.

MEPs now expect a final draft, closer to 30 pages in length, to be published toward the end of March. 

Positions: 

Jos Dings, director of NGO Transport & Environment, was unimpressed with the loose language used by the Commission. "The draft says that until 2030, it's good enough to reduce emissions by 1% a year and then suddenly after 2030, you magically have to reduce by 5% a year in order to hit the -60% target," he noted.

"That smacks of postponing difficult actions and decisions. We need urgent action to get the carbon footprint of fuels – including biofuels - under control," Dings added.

"There are a few interesting nuggets. Company car taxation is long overdue. It's not a secret that the current wave of company cars handed out to employees in Europe is a massive subsidy in disguise to the car and oil industries, because you can use as much fuel as you like without ever seeing a bill," he said. 

"The highlighting of VAT as an area where action can be taken is long overdue. Air tickets are still the only consumer product you can buy that are not subject to VAT. That should be ended as soon as possible and a gradual move to mandatory truck charges across Europe is a good idea," Dings declared.

"We are in an era of austerity and governments in Europe are taking much more awful measures than upping transport taxes. They're raiding pension services and curbing nurses and teachers salaries by double digits. Compared to that, introducing quite reasonable charges so that transport users pay for their infrastructure and their tickets don't have to be subsidised are very mild," he claimed.

Michael Nielsen, the International Road Transport Union's general delegate to the EU, was focused entirely on the interests of his members. "We have a voluntary commitment to reduce CO2 by 30% by 2030 so if they want to reduce it by 60% in 2050 that could be achievable," he said.

"But we don't believe that the disguised forced modal shift that they're now introducing again for road freight over 300km will achieve that. What can we say but good luck! They tried it once before in 2001, they will probably try it again and our hope and even request to the Commission is that they will not lose a lot of money trying," Nielsen said.

"We welcome that they are looking at all transport, including private cars. The Eurovignette revision at the moment means that we in the road transport sector are going to pay for our externalities – noise, pollution – and private car users are not. We believe that we should have an integrated approach," he added.

"We're a bit dependent on diesel. If you have a 44 tonne truck, it is impossible to electrify it in an efficient and affordable manner. We haven't seen any alternative fuels that can do the same as diesel. We're not against alternatives but we just don't see them today," he said.

"If we had tougher efficiency standards in place and an obligation to use less energy then the costs of moving to a more efficient transport system would be far less for consumers," Brook Riley, climate justice and energy spokesman for Friends of the Earth, told EurActiv.

"A very dangerous trend that we're seeing is the use of biofuels/agrifuels for air transport. We're not going to achieve a sustainable transport system by relying on these. It's interesting that this White Paper is coming out at more or less exactly the same time as the energy efficiency plan and the low-carbon roadmap for 2050."

"If the EU did propose a binding target on energy savings, it would have a strong knock-on effect on transport because it would be a real policy driver forcing us to develop much more efficient vehicles and to prioritise much better and more user-friendly rail over road and air transport," Riley concluded.

Claudio Bertelli, global business development manager at Honeywell's renewable energy division, hailed the Commission's targets for aviation fuels. "Advanced biofuels will be able to deliver a low overall environmental footprint, in terms of climate impact and air pollution," he commented.

"Contrary to first-generation biofuels, they are fully compatible with the existing infrastructure and advanced engine designs. Regrettably, to date EU policies seem to build on the legacy of first-generation biofuels, e.g. by using them as a reference. This discourages investment in new industrial scale advanced biofuel plants."

Said el-Khadraoui, a Socialist MEP and a member of the European Parliament's transport committee told EurActiv: "What we want to achieve is a decarbonised transport system sooner rather than later. In order to achieve that you need a mixture of policies and instruments, and the polluter pays principle is a very important element in this."

"Currently we are reviewing the Eurovignette Directive which is about charging heavy goods vehicles and we want to introduce a rule for the internalisation of external costs and this would be a first step towards the polluter pays principle in the transport sector. You have to give the right price signals to the transport sector in order to become more efficient and avoid some pollution of course. But you also need to invest in research and development, and infrastructure and transport apart from roads."

Hendrik Abma, executive director of European Rail Infrastructure Managers (EIM), said: "The relationship between rail and other modes of transport will be increasingly complementary in the future, with rail using its obvious strengths over long distances. In particular, the rail sector is firmly committed to improve quality and reliability of freight transport through an effective and timely implementation of the Rail Freight Corridors Regulation. Therefore we welcome innovative initiatives from national governments and transport stakeholders to help multi-modality come true." 

Andrew Davis, of Britain's Environmental Transport Association, supported the Commission's statements on road charging. "We welcome it," he told EurActiv. "We think that buses should pay for it too. If you have congestion charging then everyone that causes congestion should pay for it in the [right] proportion. We understand that in the early years that might not be a political runner but are mindful that it's best to get there in the end."  

But he was less enthusiastic about government funding for public transport. "We believe that industry has to be very careful when the government intervenes in funding at all," he said.

"The best judgements are made within the market. Investing in public transport doesn't reduce congestion. If you look at the amount of money Paris has spent on its public transport system, they seem to have just as much congestion as London. The way to deduce congestion is by charging for it. It's politically unpalatable of course but necessary."

Kallistratos Dionelis, Secretary General of the European Association of tolled road infrastructures operators (ASECAP) said that “passenger cars and hauliers should pay the real costs of the infrastructures, and that the polluters should pay for the externalities they cause. ASECAP is satisfied that the smart pricing is commonly recognised as the mean towards a greener transport environment, and promises that in this environment the tolled motorways will lead.”

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