EU greenhouse gas emissions fell 2% in 2018, according to the European Environment Agency’s preliminary estimates. After four years of stagnation and increases, this is good news especially since 2018 was a year of robust economic growth across the continent. The bad news is that EU transport emissions – road transport plus domestic shipping and aviation – increased by half a percent. That’s the fifth year-on-year increase since 2012. What can we learn from these data and what lessons does it hold for Ursula von der Leyen and Frans Timmermans as they prepare to launch a bid to increase the EU’s climate ambition?
The data for 2018 show that transport emissions are higher now than they were in 2009. We don’t have mode-specific numbers for 2018 yet but based on 2017 trends we’d expect car emissions to remain stable, and truck and van emissions to go up by 1-2%. And the bad news doesn’t end here. The official EEA numbers are actually quite flattering. About 5% of transport fuels are biofuels and are counted as having zero emissions under the EU’s climate rules. That’s obviously complete nonsense. For example, 81% of EU biodiesel is made from crops including palm oil and rapeseed. If the lifecycle emissions of biofuels were properly accounted for, greenhouse gas emissions from cars and vans would be about 10% higher than official figures.
So, have we achieved absolutely nothing since 2008 when the EU’s key climate laws were conceived?
On the one hand clearly we haven’t been successful. Fuel taxes are lower in real terms now than they were in 2007. New cars, vans and trucks have only become more fuel efficient on paper, according to the vehicle industry’s own tests while in the real world the share of SUVs rose from 8% to 36%. The share of clean and shared modes like buses and trains has stagnated both for passenger and freight transport.
All of this is the result of choices we have made. For example, the Commission and EU states completely dropped the ball on carmakers’ exploitation of CO2 emission tests, choosing to develop a marginally better test (WLTP) rather than to crack down on the gaming that was happening in carmakers labs. Had we kept the ‘gap’ between real-world and lab tests at 2008 levels, EU car emissions would be approximately 8% lower today and carmakers would have been forced to sell genuinely cleaner cars much earlier and much faster. At national level there has hardly been any meaningful tax reform and governments continue to fund pointless road expansion schemes (think of the plan to enlarge the Brussels ring road) that do nothing to stop congestion but do increase kilometres travelled.
Still, future historians are unlikely to look at the period 2008-2019 as a lost decade. And that is because, despite all the disappointment, the cheating and the lack of progress, the seeds of future progress have been planted. Action was taken to firm up the emission laws and remove some of the most egregious loopholes. Stricter 2025/2030 CO2 standards, now also covering trucks, were signed into law. Come 2021 the share of vehicles with a plug will have grown spectacularly – we expect that around 10% of cars will be chargeable, up from essentially zero in 2008/9. From then onwards we expect a steady increase in the quality, affordability and thus sales of plug-in vehicles – surging to above 30% by 2030. Anyones who’s followed Germany’s recent electric car announcements will understand that from an industrial and technological point of view, the direction of travel is now very clearly e-mobility. This is a huge change and a strategic win as our mission is not just to cut emissions in the short run but to also enable an affordable and sustainable zero-emission mobility system by the middle of the century.
But unfortunately none of this changes the fact that in the coming years road transport emissions will only decline slightly – if demand doesn’t spiral out of control through driverless cars, Ubers and the like. Based on T&E’s in-house model we estimate the EU’s car, van and truck standards combined will cut road transport emissions by around 10% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. That’s well below what’s needed to hit the EU’s current 2030 targets (-30%), let alone the higher 2030 targets Ursula Von der Leyen is proposing.
We are currently finalising an analysis looking at what it would take for transport to contribute to a higher overall target of -50/55%. The bottom line is that it’s doable, but only if we throw everything at the problem. We’d need a much more rapid uptake of EVs as well as increased fuel economy in fossil fuel vehicles in the remaining years of the 2020s. (Currently we’re expecting no improvement in internal combustion engine vehicles after 2021.) This calls for stricter, but also different vehicle CO2 laws – for example, combining a ZEV mandate with fuel efficiency standards for internal combustion engines, and making segments such as corporate fleets go fully electric by 2030.
We’d need to make the transport system more efficient, reducing the number of kilometres needed to move people and goods by making fuel or carbon-intensive travel gradually more expensive. Infrastructure spending would need to be focused entirely on zero emission charging and mass transit, enabling a rapid shift to zero emission and largely car-free (inner) cities. Finally, we’d probably need to have a fresh look at more old fashioned measures such as speed limitation. For example, harmonising truck speed limits at 80km/h would be an incredibly simple way to immediately and significantly cut truck emissions.
All of this is possible with technology that is available and affordable today. All of our proposals would be cost-beneficial and support the EU economy by shifting spending away from expensive oil imports to home-grown technology and consumption. And most of it can actually be achieved through EU action. And this is important because Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission shouldn’t just propose higher climate targets; it needs to propose the measures, investment and R&D plan that will deliver on those goals.