Will National Energy and Climate Plans, key to transport decarbonisation, deliver?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Zoltán Szabó: "Electric vehicles are all the hype today, but even the most optimistic projections do not forecast that the share of electricity used in transport will exceed one fifth of total energy use in transport in 2030." [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Europe’s transport decarbonisation.

The EU is facing another lost decade in transport decarbonisation, a difficult process that requires all available measures. The National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) are key to decarbonising transport in the next decade and delivering on the EU’s climate pledges, writes Zoltán Szabó.

Zoltán Szabó is a sustainability consultant in the bioenergy industry.

The cost of carbon abatement in transport is a material concern for member states. Electrification and biofuels are both essential, far beyond RED II requirements, but overreliance on one solution will unreasonably increase costs.

The EU is facing another lost decade in transport decarbonisation. Transport Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions have been on the rise, and are on track to become the single largest source of climate emissions in the EU.

Why is it so hard to decarbonise transport? The answer is simple; there is no silver bullet in transport. Therefore, all available measures are needed and even those will be insufficient to reign in transport GHGs.

The IPCC has made it clear in its 1.5 degrees report that the years until 2030 are critical. It is a make or break opportunity. Although 2050 discussions are important, the timeframe of most relevance is until 2030.

Progress to be achieved today cannot be substituted by GHG reductions achieved between 2030 and 2050. Whether the EU will deliver on its climate pledges will depend on the robustness of National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs).

NECPs are intended as the blueprint for EU energy and climate action between 2020 and 2030. Draft NECPs have already been submitted to Brussels, and the European Commission has just issued recommendations to countries to amend the draft NECPs.

The Commission calls on member states to step up ambition in NECPs. Member States have until the end of the year to submit the final plans to the European Commission.

There are two major problems with draft NECPs. Firstly, they are insufficiently detailed, lacking coherence or structure. Second, the drafts take little or no account of the costs of proposed actions. Final plans will need to become much more robust, otherwise, member states will not deliver on energy and climate and the EU will be unable to meet its targets.

Recent research carried out by Ecofys/Navigant has shown that electrification and European produced biofuels are the only realistic technologies available for large scale decarbonisation to 2030. Combined biofuels and electromobility scheme maximises carbon reductions cost-effectively.

Despite strong citizen support, biofuels controversy was often in the focus during the debate on RED II. The EU has recently singled out palm oil as a high ILUC biofuel to be phased out for causing unwanted land use change. It seems sustainable crop-based biofuels will eventually be differentiated from palm oil.

Nonetheless, it is reasonable to ask whether the debate on the sustainability of biofuels will ever end?

Biofuels issues are complex, but it is getting less and less so. The discussion today is very different from a decade ago when data were scant and the world had to rely on models and predictions on the likely impacts of biofuel policies.

Catastrophic projections made a decade ago never came true. In fact, data gathered over the past decade is getting clear, and international organisations are taking notice. The IPCC says that “growth rates projected in [biofuels and electric vehicles] pathways would be unprecedented in a 1.5D scenario and far higher than has been experienced to date”.

The FAO states that the food v fuel debate is a “false dichotomy”. The IEA chief says that ethanol is “very important because part of the solution in terms of reducing oil import dependence of many countries.”

Electric vehicles are all the hype today, but even the most optimistic projections do not forecast that the share of electricity used in transport will exceed one-fifth of total energy use in transport in 2030. In other words, at least every four out of five units of energy used by cars in ten years time will still come from fossil fuels. It is therefore critical that oil is displaced.

The EU may adjust its policy in case RED II does not deliver. Policy implementation has become critical.

Lesson learnt from the Paris yellow vests movement is that price matters. A climate measure, raising the price of fossil fuels, was rejected by citizens because the cost implications to citizens were neglected. For many, even a small increase in the price of fuel was too much to bear.

After all, it seems climate saving is not much different from other policies on public goods. Governments ignore the cost aspect at their peril. However, the observation that price matters stand in stark contrast with discussions across the EU on transport decarbonisation.

Specifically, where’s the discussion on carbon abatement costs in transport? The EU has yet to commission comprehensive research on the cost of transport decarbonisation options. The Ecofys/Navigant report should serve as a model.

There is an emerging consensus that all available measures, including e-mobility, sustainable biofuels produced in Europe (exclude palm oil diesel) are needed, otherwise, targets will be unmeetable.

Cost-effective decarbonisation requires an “and” approach to oil displacement, not “either/or”. Furthermore, there is a need to consider costs to society, and NECPs must be cost-effective and cost-benefit analysis including carbon abatement cost is key.

If we want to make NECPs effective in transport, we need to make sure that sustainable biofuels are included and that we have costed our options. Maximising carbon savings in transport at the lowest cost must be a priority. That is the task ahead of us before NECPs are finalised.

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