EU’s clean transport dream faces familiar speed bumps

An electric vehicle charging station.

Plans to kick-start Europe’s low carbon vehicles industry with a huge infrastructure package ran into retro roadblocks at a meeting of EU transport ministers yesterday (11 March), with member states bemoaning the use of public funds to reach ambitious targets.



Cars are responsible for 12% of Europe’s carbon emissions and the figure is rising. Europe’s transport network is 94% dependent on oil, 84.3% of which is imported, often from unstable regions, and a need for fuel diversification is widely recognised.

Earlier this year, the transport commissioner Siim Kallas unveiled proposals to multiply by ten times or more the number of recharging and refuelling points for vehicles that run on alternative fuels such as electricity, hydrogen and gas.

But at the Council meeting yesterday, several EU states objected to the spending needed to realise these goals by 2020, particularly an obligation that 10% of charging points be ‘publicly accessible’.

“It is normal and natural for member states that have to raise taxes to pay for things to raise concerns about costs,” the Irish transport minister Leo Varadkar told a Brussels press conference. “And also to raise questions about the timelines that are feasible and the number of charging points that are required.”

“Also there are questions about the technology which is still evolving,” he continued. “No-one wants to invest large amounts of money in a technology that might turn out to be obsolete quite quickly.”

EU 2020 road runners

The EU’s proposal mandates a 300 km maximum distance between hydrogen fuel cell refuelling stations, and a 400 km one for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) filling stations on core roads. LNG stations would be installed in the core 10% of Europe’s ports too.

A 150km maximum distance for Compressed Natural Gas filling stations would help to assuage ‘range anxiety’ fears for the one million European vehicles currently using this fuel.

For electric vehicles, the EU’s plans would see recharging points proliferate according to each member state’s low carbon car production plans.

So in the UK, they would mushroom from 703 last year to 1.22 million in 2020. In Germany, the rise would be from 1,937 to 1.5 million and in France, from 1,600 to 970,000.

But the chances of this vision materialising by 2020 are dwindling, despite a shared recognition of the need to end Europe’s dependency on oil imports and maintain competitiveness in a global clean cars race which now involves Japan, China and the US.

Timelines and targets

“I think it is pretty clear that we have to look again at the Commission’s timelines and perhaps make some adjustments to the targets,” Marcella Smyth, a spokeswoman for the Irish presidency told EURACTIV. “If you look at the targets, the concerns are about being able to reach them.”

Ireland is on track to meet its clean transport obligations, Smyth said, “but others have stated that they felt the targets were overly ambitious.”

At a press conference following the Council, Commissioner Kallas insisted: “We don’t see substantial amounts of public money being made available or used for these proposals.”

Most of the €10-billion required for the plan is expected to come from industry, as there is a clear interest in breaking the vicious circle that prevents low-carbon vehicles being manufactured because of a lack of infrastructure.  

EU states are not mandated to pay for the new refuelling infrastructure by the EU’s plan, but they do need to make arrangements for it to be installed, so as to meet the Commission’s goal.

Jobs and growth opportunity

The green pressure group Transport and Environment sees this kind of infrastructure as a jobs and growth opportunity, because of its labour-intensive character. It need not necessarily be free at the point of use either. 

“There is a range of mechanisms that governments can introduce to incentivise this,” said Greg Archer, T&E's clean vehicles manager. “They could for instance deploy levies on fossil fuels sales for people who did not support the introduction of alternative refuelling infrastructure.”

By 2050, the Commission’s Transport 2050 strategy aims to cut transport emissions to at least 60% of 1990 levels. But “the take up of ultra low carbon cars is not going to happen without a complimentary development of recharging and refuelling infrastructure,” Archer told EURACTIV.

The Irish presidency says it will deliver a progress report on the clean transport package by the end of June.

Passenger cars alone are responsible for 12% of total EU emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas.

In 2007, the EU proposed legislation setting emission performance standards for new cars, which was adopted in 2009 by the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. Today's EU targets ensure that average emissions from new passenger cars do not exceed 130 grams of CO2 per km (g/km) by 2015.

A White Paper on Transport, presented by the Commission in February 2011, flagged measures to raise the €1.8 trillion which the EU says is needed for infrastructure investment in the next 20 years.

Proposals published earlier this year have set a further targets of 95 grams for new passenger cars by 2020, and 147 g/km for vans. By the end of 2014, new targets could be announced for 2025 and 2030.

  • 2013: Review of 2020 automobile CO2 target expected to wrap up
  • 31 Dec. 2014: EU expected to complete review of targets for 2020 and 2025
  • 1 Jan. 2015: 130 grams of CO2 per km target to be enforced across Europe
  • Dec. 2015: Deadline for common standards for hydrogen CNG and LNG refuelling stations in new clean transport package
  • 2016: US to introduce 35 mpg standard for all new passenger cars
  • 2020: Deadline for new alternative fuel refuelling stations in new clean transport package
  • 2020: 95 grams of CO2 per km target expected to enter force across Europe
  • 2025: European Commission could impose another milestone on the road to decarbonisation by 2050
  • 2025: US to introduce 54.5 mpg standard for all new passenger cars
  • 2030: European Commission could impose another milestone on the road to decarbonisation by 2050

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