Roads to climate-friendly transport are many

European policy-makers discussed almost every possible way to encourage cleaner transport in the EU at a round-table debate organised in the context of the Commission’s annual Green Week event.

With road transport and aviation among the fastest rising sources of greenhouse gas emissions, pressure is increasing on EU policy-makers to reduce the climate impact of transport.

Policy-makers meeting during the Commission’s annual Green Week round of conferences held an animated debate on how cleaner technologies for transport could be further encouraged in Europe. The debate was organised by Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe.

Cleaner transport technologies already exist. They include alternative fuels for road transport, improved fuel-efficiency for aeroplanes and vehicles as well as hybrid electric-gasoline car engines. 

A number of measures have since been introduced to make transport cleaner. These include: 

  • the promotion of alternative fuels; and
  • a directive setting general tax principles to all energy products but which grants large exemptions to fuels used in commercial road and air transportation (EURACTIV, 28 Oct. 2003)

A proposal to charge heavy trucks on European roads – the Eurovignette directive (see related LinksDossier) – was introduced in 2003 and is currently in the legislative pipeline. As its stands, the directive enables EU countries to collect an extra 15% charge that can be used to finance new alternative transport infrastructure projects such as rail or inland waterways (EURACTIV, 25 April 2005). 

A wide array of technologies and measures are already at hand to ensure less CO2 is generated from cars (see EURACTIV’s LinksDossier on Green cars).  

Research is also being undertaken for the longer run on breakthrough technologies such as hydrogen and fuel cell to make cars greener (EURACTIV, 18 March 2005).

MEP Dorette Corbey (PES, Netherlands) argued the case for integrating the environmental 'footprint' of transport into prices. That would mean prices between different modes of transport (road, air, train) but also that of different car or truck models according to how much they pollute. This information should be communicated to individual consumers through labelling but also to local authorities when they make fleet purchase of buses for instance. This environmental indicator would then constitute the basis for tax incentives granted by EU countries at the national level.

Reinhard Schulte-Braucks of the Commission's DG Enterprise and Industry welcomed the initiatives proposed by Ms Corbey but stressed that prices for cars and trucks should remain affordable to consumers and transport companies as they are a vital element of economic activity. He said policies in the transport field needs to strike the right balance between environmental protection and those consumer and market concerns. On the possible inclusion of transport in the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS), he said the likely inclusion of airlines could be followed by the road sector but that this would take time (i.e.: probably not before 2012).

Claude Turmes MEP (Greens/EFA, Luxembourg) said limiting the discussion on the climate impact of transport to technology alone was wrong. Pointing to a fast growing middle class worldwide that is soon expected to reach three billion, he said it would be archaic thinking to imagine that every individual could own a car. He instead pleaded for tax incentives to be granted for public transport, teleconference calls and car sharing. 

Hermann Meyer, from the European carmaker association ACEA got down to some myth-breaking on the fuel cell hydrogen engine currently being presented as the most promising long term technology for clean vehicles. Pointing to the fact that producing and compressing hydrogen is highly energy intensive, Meyer said this would also in turn produce CO2 and contribute to global warming. Instead, he preferred drawing attention to the industry's voluntary agreement to reduce CO2. For a later stage, he proposed that the fuel sector be drawn into a similar voluntary scheme. Other measures he suggested were to improve road infrastructure to reduce congestion (and therefore limit fuel consumption) and educate motorists to drive in a more fuel-efficient manner (lower speeds).

Henry Abraham at Transport for London said a tax system is the only effective policy instrument at hand to encourage cleaner technologies. But as tax harmonisation in the EU is out of question at the moment, he instead pleaded for a coordinated framework between member states - such as a ten-year agreement between the Commission and the member states on tax incentives.

Former Belgian transport minister Isabelle Durant (Ecolo party) said that efforts made on, say, tax incentives for cleaner cars were all very well if they were not so easily be offset by rising CO2 emissions from air transport. To her, cheap airlines should not be allowed to offer tickets for as little as two euros for a 500 km ride when the less polluting TGV train would cost a hundred euros to travel the same distance. Her proposal is therefore to switch the tax incentives 'from fiscal to modal'. She also pleaded for fairer pricing of infrastructure that would take account of environmental costs - a stronger Eurovignette directive. 

According to Malcolm Fergusson of the Institute for Environmental Policy (IEEP), EU environmental standards are an essential strength for the EU as they are often adopted elsewhere (including Asia). He outlined countries such as China that are not worried about climate change are now anxious about the fuel crisis and turning to EU standards. "We should not be scared of regulation," Fergusson said. "It protects our market". On incentives for cleaner cars, Fergusson suggested a tax be levied on the dirtiest vehicles that could be used to subsidise the cleaner ones.

In September 2001, the European Commission presented a policy manifesto (white paper) setting the course of policy measures to make transport in Europe more sustainable by 2010 (see related LinksDossier). 

One of the main drivers behind the policy statement was to take part of European freight away from highly polluting roads in favour of the greener and less congested railways, maritime routes and inland waterways. If applied, this 'modal shift' of freight would reduce CO2 emissions by a related amount.

A central and highly disputed element of the Commission strategy was to try and establish a pricing system that would integrate the external costs of transport. These include a broad range of issues including traffic congestion, road deaths and pollution. Suggested measures included harmonisation of fuel taxation.

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