The future of European transport and the decarbonisation challenge

Domenico Salerno

The transport sector is undergoing a period of great change. The traditional concept of mobility has been upset, on the one hand, by the exponential growth globally of the trade in goods and, on the other, by the increasing number of people moving to and within urban areas. A sustainable transition is one of the main challenges facing this sector in the near future. Over the last decades, emissions from the EU transport sector have not been dropping enough to limit its environmental and climate impacts. Observing the data published by the IEA relating to EU CO2 emissions in the period from 1990 to 2018, it is clear that, out of the most polluting sectors, the transport sector is the only one not to have reduced its emissions. In fact, nowadays it accounts for almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the main cause of air pollution in urban areas, posing a health and environmental threat.

Demand for passenger and freight transport in the EU saw a sustained period of growth until 2007-2008. After the peak, in the period 2009-2012, demand for passenger transport remained quite stable with only a slight overall reduction. In contrast, demand for freight transport decreased by up to 11% (between 2008 and 2009) as a result of the economic recession. Since then, demand for passenger and freight transport has been growing. The modal split in passenger transport did not greatly change in the decade 2010-2019. Passenger cars largely dominated (83%) and accounted for most of the increase in inland passenger transport volumes, followed by aviation. The shares of rail transport and bus and coach services in the passenger modal split remained low (8% and 9%, respectively), not greatly changing between 2005 and 2017 (+1% and -1.4%, respectively). Road freight and waterborne transport (inland waterways and maritime) were responsible for over 85% of total freight transport volumes, followed by rail (11%). During the period 2000-2017, among the other freight transport modes, road freight transport increased the most (by 24%).

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the share of greenhouse gas emissions from the transport mode (2017) sees road transport in first place (71.7%), followed by aviation (13.9%), maritime (13.4%) and rail (0.5%). Although it is important that all transport modes should become more sustainable, it is clear that particular attention must be placed on road transport. The latest version of the ACEA “Vehicles in use, Europe” report (January 2021) highlights how in 2019 the European (UE27) car fleet grew by 1.8% compared to the previous year, reaching 242.7 million vehicles on the road. The average age of cars on EU27 roads is 11.5 years, meaning that more than half of the cars currently used by European citizens were purchased before the introduction of the Euro 5 emission standard (January 2011). Despite an increase in registrations in recent years, alternatively-powered cars make up just 4.6% of the total EU car fleet. Only 0.8% of all cars on Europe’s roads are hybrid electric, while both battery electric and plug-in hybrids each account for only 0.2% of the total. In 2019, almost 60% of all new cars registered in the European Union ran on petrol (58.9%, compared to 56.6% in 2018), while diesel accounted for 30.5% of registrations (35.9% in 2018).

As for other types of road vehicles, more than 28 million vans are in circulation throughout the EU. Diesel-powered light commercial vehicles make up almost 90% of the EU van fleet, while battery electric vans account for only 0.3%. Again, diesel-powered heavy commercial vehicles are the most numerous on European roads, with 97.8% of all trucks running on diesel, while petrol fuels 1.3% of the fleet. 0.04% of trucks on the EU roads are zero-emissions. Around 692,207 buses run throughout the EU, with almost half found in three countries alone – Poland, Italy and France. Diesel buses still account for 94.5% the EU fleet, with only 0.6% being battery electric.

Reducing the pressures of transport (and, overall, road transport) on the environment and climate is critical. This is established by the European Climate Law, aiming at climate neutrality by 2050, reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to 0 and achieving full decoupling between economic growth and polluting emissions. To make this possible, the European Union in recent years has adopted a series of measures aimed at accelerating the green transition of mobility.

In particular, the “Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy”, released by the Commission last December, defines a roadmap of objectives to be achieved in the coming decades. Specifically, it is expected that by 2030 that at least 30 million zero-emission vehicles will be on European roads; 100 European cities will be climate-neutral; high-speed rail traffic will double; planned collective journeys of less than 500 km should be carbon neutral within the EU; automated mobility will be widespread on a large scale; and zero-emission ships will be ready for the market. Instead, by 2035, large zero-emission aircraft will be ready for the market. And finally, by 2050, almost all new cars, vans, buses and heavy-duty vehicles will be carbon neutral; rail freight traffic will double; high-speed rail traffic will triple; and the multimodal trans-European transport network (TEN-T), equipped for sustainable and intelligent transport with high-speed connectivity, will be operational for the global network.

In order to achieve these goals, to reduce transport dependence on fossil fuels and to build a sustainable, smart and resilient mobility system, the Commission envisages the following three pillars of action: 1) Make all modes of transport more sustainable; 2) Make sustainable alternatives widely available in a multimodal transport system; 3) Introduce the right incentives to drive the transition. These three pillars involve measures to significantly reduce current dependence on fossil fuels (e.g., replacing fleets with low and zero-emission vehicles and promoting the use of renewable and low-carbon fuels), tools for orienting activities towards more sustainable transport modes (e.g., increasing the number of passengers traveling by rail and commuters using public transport and active modes of transport and moving a considerable amount of freight on rail, inland waterways and short sea shipping), and the internalisation of external costs by applying the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘user pays’ principles through carbon pricing and pricing mechanism tools.

The “Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy” is divided into 10 flagships, key areas of intervention, which, in turn, involve 82 actions. Overall, in order to support the sustainable transition of transport, the action plan of the European strategy envisages strengthening the adoption of zero-emissions, renewable fuel and low-carbon vehicles, ships and airplanes and related infrastructures by, for example, installing 3 million public charging points by 2030. It also considers building zero-emission airports and ports and promoting initiatives to foster sustainable aviation and marine fuels. The aim is to make urban and interurban mobility as environmentally friendly as possible, including doubling high-speed rail traffic and developing cycling infrastructure to a significant extent in the next decade. Sustainability measures will also be taken for freight transport, doubling rail freight traffic by 2050. Where tax leveraging is concerned, it is proposed to determine the price of carbon and provide incentives for users, establishing a set of tools to provide fair and efficient prices on all means of transport.

Research Fellow dell'Istituto per la Competitività (I-Com). Nato ad Avellino nel 1990. Ha conseguito una laurea triennale in “Economia e gestione delle aziende e dei servizi sanitari” presso l’Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore e successivamente una laurea magistrale in “International Management” presso la LUISS Guido Carli. Al termine del percorso accademico ha frequentato un master in “Export Management & International Business” presso la business school del Sole 24 Ore.