A shock to the system: Why energy union must deliver transport efficiency and electrification

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

Road freight transport emissions may increase by 600% by 2050. [Barry Lewis/Flickr]

The global picture is clear: both demand for surface transport and resulting CO2 emissions are going to skyrocket by 2050. Even for those who analyse transport on a daily basis the figures are startling – an increase of up to 110% in carbon emissions from passenger transport and up to a whopping 600% from freight, says transport expert.

Carlos Calvo Ambel is an energy policy analyst at Transport & Environment.

Even more worrying than these figures, contained in the 2015 Transport Outlook of the International Transport Forum (ITF), an OECD think tank, is the fact that, by assuming existing climate obligations will be honoured, the ITF research presents an optimistic scenario for the development of global passenger mobility, freight volumes and CO2 emissions up to 2050. Aviation and shipping emissions are also expected to multiply by 2050. Reversing these trends will be essential to stave off the most dangerous effects of climate change.

And Europe too has a problem. In order to achieve the EU 2050 goal of at least a 80% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to 1990 levels, the European Commission established in the White Paper on Transport that at least a 60% reduction in transport emissions is needed compared to the 1990 baseline. That’s around 70% below 2008 levels.

The ITF outlook clearly demonstrates that Europe is on course to completely miss this goal. Indeed, even in the most optimistic scenarios (public transport-oriented urbanisation, modal shift, decreasing freight intensity) Europe is set to miss the -60% goal by a wide margin.

This means that other sectors like industry or agriculture will have to do more, or we will simply fail to avoid catastrophic climate change. While it’s true that scenarios are not forecasts, they do help to identify trends and to focus our thinking about the future. But it is obvious that decisive action is needed to set us on a more sustainable track.

Surface passenger and freight transport were responsible for more than 80% of transport emissions in the EU in 2010 and will still be in 2050, according to the European Commission. The EU has made a start on surface passenger transport by setting CO2 emission standards for cars and vans and maintaining a minimum level of excise tax on fossil transport fuels. This helps explain why the ITF forecasts that passenger transport CO2 emissions will decrease by between 7% and 35% by 2050. This is, however, nowhere near the level of reductions that will be required. Tighter CO2 standards starting in 2025, higher fuel taxes and specific policies to accelerate the shift to e-mobility are the key ingredients of what needs to be done.

For freight emissions, the EU doesn’t have a plan and it shows. The ITF estimates that by 2050 surface freight CO2 emissions will increase by between 28% and 55% on 2010 levels. Clearly, no long-term climate plan, let alone a climate plan for transport, can be credible without addressing the increase in freight volumes and emissions. A credible policy mix would include CO2 standards for trucks to stimulate a shift to hybrid drivetrains, the roll-out of km-based tolling all over the EU and policies to shift freight away from conventional trucks. Rail freight has a big role to play but electrifying parts of the road network (for example, through overhead catenary or induction) could be another solution.

It is clear from this report that the EU needs radical and far-reaching changes in its transport policies – transport is already the sector with the highest levels of GHG emissions and is 95% dependent on one source of energy that is becoming ever more dirty: oil. The new European Commission has the opportunity to diverge from the expected path by including transport in all dimensions of the nascent Energy Union. Low-carbon transport should be a priority for security of supply, decarbonisation of our economy, and research and innovation. Putting a strong emphasis on higher efficiency and electrification of transport would be a step in the right direction.

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