EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said in a strategy paper that greenhouse gas emissions from transport should be cut to about a fifth below current levels by 2030, and to 60% below 1990 levels by 2050.
In the long term, that means eliminating oil-fuelled motor cars from cities, shifting half of road freight onto trains and barges, and getting around 40% of aviation fuel from sustainable biofuels.
The economic crisis has made the objective even more pressing, given that the EU spends around 210 billion euros a year on importing oil.
"Trains, planes and ships last for decades," Kallas told reporters. "The choices made today will determine the shape of transport in 2050, and that's why we are acting now to achieve a transformation."
Kallas stressed that increasing mobility and cutting emissions should be tackled at the same time. "We can and we must do both. The widely held belief that you need to cut mobility to fight climate change is simply not true," he said.
"Curbing mobility is not an option," Kallas insisted.
Green measures postponed
However, most of the green measures are postponed for later.
The 2030 goal of a 20% cut in emissions is based on cuts from recent levels, but it fails even to cancel out a rise of about a third since 1990, which was mainly caused by increasing car ownership and cheaper flights.
Compared to the 1990 baseline, which the EU uses for nearly all its other measurements of emissions, Kallas' target actually amounts to an 8% increase.
"This Commission paper blatantly passes the buck to the next generation," said Franziska Achterberg of Greenpeace.
"The transport sector will become Europe's biggest source of carbon emissions," she added. "This strategy will do nothing to protect the EU from volatile oil prices."
Manifesto for inaction?
Kallas countered that he had to strike a difficult balance.
"Freedom to travel is a basic right for our citizens, and is critical to the development of Europe's business sector – curbing mobility is not an option," he told reporters.
Refining industry group Europia welcomed that stance. "Crude oil derived products, according to independent sources like the International Energy Agency, will continue to play an important role for decades to come," it said in a statement.
Airports group ACI Europe was also happy that mobility would not be curbed, but green transport campaigners T&E said aviation should not be let off the hook.
"This is a manifesto for inaction," said T&E's Jos Dings. "The only concrete action the Commission proposes within its current mandate (2010-14) is to expand airport capacity, which will make the headline targets even harder to reach."
A separate report on Monday highlighted the EU's rapid success in curbing emissions from passenger cars, even with modest goals.
Toyota has nearly reached its 2015 fuel-efficiency target with roughly four years to spare, and Portugal's car market is already there, the report said.
The 2011 White Paper proposes a series of key measures for the coming years (2011-2014):
- A major overhaul of the regulatory framework for rail (2012/2013) to make it more attractive to users and increase carrying capacity for passenger and freight over middle distances (< 300 km).
- New proposals for infrastructure to achieve a core European "multi-modal" transport network (2011)
- An airport package to improve the efficiency and capacity of airports (2011).
- A communication on inland waterways (2012) as well as an e-maritime initiative (2011) to create a "Blue Belt" area without barriers for shipping.
- Removing restrictions to road cabotage (20122013).
- A new approach to transport charges with a wider application of the 'polluter pays' and 'user pays' principles. This includes guidelines for for the application of infrastructure costs to passenger cars (2012).
(EurActiv with Reuters.)