In recent years, cleaner road vehicles and fuels have become progressively more available, yet the sector’s impacts on human health, the environment and climate change are persistent. A fundamental shift toward sustainability is needed in the way we move people and goods.

Millions of cars, vans, trucks and buses move people and goods around on Europe's extensive road transport infrastructure. Despite a shift towards electric vehicles in recent years, most vehicles in the EU still rely on petrol and diesel, which release air pollutants that harm our health and greenhouse gases emissions that contribute to climate change. Transport contributes to about a quarter of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions. Three-quarters of these come from road transport.

Noise pollution is also a severe and often under-reported health impact for those living or working close to major roads. A growing reliance on road transport and expansion in road networks impacts biodiversity by shrinking and separating natural areas and limiting the ability of wildlife to move and migrate. 

Moreover, our roadways are getting busier and more congested. Our transport and environment report shows that passenger car transport increased by 18% between 2000 and 2019, and road freight increased by 31% between 2000 and 2019.

Electric cars, efficient engines and cleaner fuels will fall short of mitigating all the negative impacts of road transport. A sustainable road transport can only be achieved within a Sustainable mobility system, with a focus on public transport and greener modes of transport, such as rail or cycling.

Road transport is one of the most significant sources of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, 77% of EU transport emissions came from road transport in 2020. The road transport sector is also not improving fast enough to meet the goals set out in the European Green Deal. Following a period of steady growth in greenhouse gas emissions from the EU’s transport sector from 2013 to 2019, the sector’s emissions dropped substantially in 2020 because of decreased activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary estimates of emissions in 2021 indicate a rebound in transport emissions last year of 7.7%.

Our indicators also show that:

  • At least 18 million people are highly annoyed and 5 million are highly sleep disturbed by long-term exposure to noise from transport in the EU.
  • Average CO2 emissions from all new cars registered in Europe in 2023 continued to decrease and were 1.4% lower than in 2022, according to provisional data published by the EEA. Similarly, average CO2 emissions from new vans continued to fall, and were 1.6% lower than in 2022. The reductions in emissions from new cars and vans are related to the growing share of fully electric vehicles.
  • 2022 saw a significant increase in the uptake of electric cars and vans in the EU-27. Electric car registrations for the year represented 21.6% of the new cars registered. 
  • The EU has not succeeded in meeting its 2020 target to reduce the greenhouse gas emission intensity of fuels sold for road transport to 6% below 2010 levels. Between 2010 and 2021, the emission intensity decreased by 5.5%, mostly because of the increased use of biofuels.

EU policies to achieve more sustainable road transport are shaped mainly by the European Green Deal and the Sustainable and Smart Mobility strategy. The European Green Deal aims to achieve a 90% reduction in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Specifically, the plan calls for a 55% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. EU efforts also include rigorous efforts to reduce average CO2 emissions from new vans and heavy-duty vehicles.

EU policies also set milestones for road transport, such as at least 30 million zero-emission cars operating on European roads by 2030, and nearly all cars, vans, buses as well as new heavy-duty vehicles being zero-emission by 2050. Electrification of road transport and cleaner fuels will play a key role in achieving climate neutrality in Europe by 2050.

Better efficiency of vehicles and biofuel use has partially offset emissions, but more cars and trucks are on the road — and a small, but increasing, share of them are electric. The widespread uptake of electric vehicles in the coming years will depend on the development of charging infrastructure, and its sustainability will depend on how the electricity to charge the vehicles is produced.

Also, as part of the European Green Deal, the European Commission proposed new Euro 7 standards for fuels, to reduce pollutant emissions from vehicles and improve air quality. New testing procedures for passenger cars are also put in place to give a more accurate overview of vehicle emissions compared with the previously existing ones.

Achieving sustainability in road transport, however, requires going beyond efficiency gains, electric cars or cleaner fuels. It requires a transformation of the entire mobility system, encompassing reframing the mobility need and how this need could be met through public transport, active mobility and cleaner modes.

Image of traffic signs showing no-stopping with arrows pointing left or right and prohibiting vehicles.

Engines are more efficient but more vehicles are on the road

Growing transport volumes have been driving Europe’s road transport emissions up in the past two decades. Total greenhouse gas emissions from both passenger cars and heavy goods vehicles have increased in Europe, despite better engine efficiency and the use of biofuels.

According to EEA data, CO2 emissions from passenger cars in the 27 EU Member States increased by 5.8%, and emissions from heavy goods vehicles increased by 5.5%, from 2000 to 2019.

The main reason for the total increase in both car and truck emissions was growing transport volumes, which have only partially been offset by better fuel efficiency and the use of biofuels.

More electric vehicles on the road

Electric vehicles play a massive role in reducing transport tailpipe emissions and meeting the goals defined in the European Green Deal.

Considerable progress in the uptake of electric cars and vans in the EU was made in 2022, with 21.6% of new car registrations being electric vehicles. Totalling close to two million electric car registrations in one year, up from 1,74 million in 2021.

The number of electric vans on European roads also continued to grow, reaching a share of 5.5% of new registrations in 2022.

In the last year, the number of newly registered battery electric vehicles increased by 25% while the number of plug-in hybrid cars remained stable. Battery electric vehicles accounted for the vast majority of electric vans registrations in 2022.

To aid the transition to electric vehicle use, the EU aims to have one million public charging points available to residents by 2025.

Source: EEA, 2023

Copernicus satellite image of land surface movement.

Note: Red areas indicate where the ground sank compared to the measurements from the year before.

What can Copernicus data tell us?

Roads are built on land and the ground under our feet might not be as solid as we think. In fact, the ground can move many centimetres per year; it can sink or rise, due to for example subsidence, landslides or human activity.

Within the Copernicus Land Monitoring Service, the European Ground Motion Service (EGMS) provides detailed information on such surface movement.

EGMS data can be used to monitor the displacement of critical transport infrastructure such as roads, tunnels, and bridges. This results in more effective maintenance and prevention of roadblocks or traffic jams.

More information