Brussels, we have a problem: Transport is the number one GHG emitting sector in Europe

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Berck-sur-Mer: the kite 'La fusée de Tintin' by the Frenchman Michel COLIN. [Getty Images]

The issue of climate change has topped the past weeks’ political agenda from protests intensifying around the world ahead of the UN climate action summit, to the IPCC releasing yet another alarming report on the impact of climate change on oceans.

The ART Fuels Forum, established under the project: “Support for alternative and renewable liquid and gaseous fuels forum (policy and market issues)”, is financed by the European Commission and aims at bringing together selected representatives towards facilitating discussion and elaboration of common issues on policy and market penetration barriers for these fuels.

Across Europe, many citizens took part in the annual EU mobility week. The EU capital alongside other cities had its traditional car-free Sunday on 22 September, with all generations reclaiming the road. Yet, the next day, traffic was back “at full speed” highlighting how essential cars remain to our lives.

In Europe, transport is the number one GHG emitting sector. Compared to other economic sectors like power, industry, agriculture and buildings, it is the only sector that has not been able to curb its CO2-emissions in the past decade.[1] Transport in the EU remains almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel and the expectation is that it will still be 90% in 2030.[2]

There are many measures that can be deployed to address the growing (fossil) energy demand and associated GHG emissions: increased efficiency, engine CO2-standards, modal shifts from road to rail and water, but also increased use of public transport, more walking and cycling, change in powertrains/engines that can run on for example electricity or hydrogen made from renewable sources. However, all assessments indicate that the contribution of these measures will not be enough to achieve the 2030 emission savings (e.g. even a fast deployment of electric vehicles will result in less than 1% avoided total transport sector GHG emissions on a well-to-wheel basis by 2030)[3], leaving an enormous gap to be closed from 2030 to 2050[4].

A critical solution in the transport decarbonization toolbox is the use of alternative renewable fuels. These are available today, easy to deploy and help lower the carbon footprint of existing cars, buses, trucks, ships or planes and possibly space rockets! Most of these alternative fuels used today consist of biofuels or biomethane that are blended with fossil fuels in relatively small quantities. For example, E10 gasoline is available at the pump in France, Germany, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands and soon in several central European countries. It contains up to 10% ethanol, an alternative fuel that reduces GHG emissions by 71% on average compared to gasoline.

Ethanol is only one example. Several other sustainable fuels have been developed, like HVO, a bio-based alternative to diesel, and are now steadily being scaled up. There are very promising technologies but building production capacity up to the level that creates the necessary impact is challenging. Both more renewable fuels and electricity will require further large investments, also in infrastructure. Not only because the new technologies have to become competitive with mature fossil fuel technology but also because large volumes of fossil fuels need to be replaced in a relatively short period. Oil had more than 150 years to optimize; this industry has three decades left to transform and become carbon neutral.

The crux of the issue is that the environmental costs linked to the use of fossil are still not reflected in the price paid by consumers. Mainstreaming alternative fuels requires a fundamental change in government policy on subsidizing and taxing energy products. This is typically difficult to achieve at EU level but is nevertheless essential if Europe is to be successful in reaching its climate objectives.

Outgoing Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action Miguel Arias Cañete has in the past months pointed at the lack of coherence between the energy taxation framework and the EU’s energy and climate policies and objectives. The 16 years old energy taxation directive is not providing the right incentives to consumers and does not facilitate the deployment of low carbon solutions, he said. This hot potato is being passed on to the next Commission which will need to be extra creative and persuasive to reach a swift agreement on this sensitive file for Member States. Meanwhile, Governments will also need to do more to facilitate investments in alternative renewable fuels, providing funding for innovation and to bridge the valley of death from innovation to market. The newly created Innovation Fund and the call to have the European Investment Bank to focus on renewable energy projects are encouraging.

The Alternative Renewable Transportation Fuels Forum (in short, ART Fuels Forum) is a platform that is committed to supporting the decarbonization of transport thanks to the deployment of alternative fuels. The Forum was set up in 2017 and brings together more than 100 experts providing decisionmakers and regulators with the latest state-of-play and progress on alternative and renewable transport fuels and best practice policies for facilitating their uptake.

Do not hesitate to reach out to the ART Fuels Forum if you would like to contribute to the discussion on alternative fuels or if you are looking for information in this area. Do also watch out for regular contributions in this Euractiv section on alternative and renewable fuels.

[1] Greenhouse gas emissions from transport continue to rise, and in 2017 were 20% higher than in 1990, COM(2018)733, page 22.

[2] SWD(2016)418 final, Impact assessment for the REDII proposal, page 237.

[3] IEA, Global EV Outlook 2019, https://www.iea.org/gevo2019/

[4] IEA, Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, June 2017

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