Green choices: policymakers, investors and consumers…

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Article Published 29 Jun 2016 Last modified 21 Mar 2023
10 min read
Photo: © Catarina Rogado (My City / EEA)
This page was archived on 21 Mar 2023 with reason: Content is outdated
From walking and electric cars to massive freight vessels and high speed trains, a wide range of transport options exist. Many factors, including price, distance, availability of infrastructure and convenience, can play a role when selecting a transport mode. Car rides are the preferred mode for passenger transport in Europe. But even then, some options are cleaner than others. How can we opt for greener choices?

The transport sector provides an essential service to today’s society, contributing significantly to quality of life. In some cases, transport meets a vital need such as food distribution, commuting to work or going to school. In other cases, it facilitates leisure time. Depending on the transport mode selected, the journey might generate varying impacts on the environment and human health. In many cases, we have a choice.

Consider a commute of 5 kilometres. There might be several options available: ride our bicycle, drive alone in our diesel SUV (sport utility vehicle), carpool with co-workers or take public transport. Some of the options will always be more environment friendly than others. At the same time, not all options will be available to everyone. For example, a very rough terrain without bicycle paths on a stormy day will only appeal to adventurous cyclists in good form. Similarly, car-pooling in an electric car is more likely to happen when certain conditions are met, such as the availability of re-charging stations and a community of car-poolers.

The transport sector involves a wide range of stakeholders from urban planners and vehicle manufacturers to passengers. To facilitate the transition towards a green and sustainable transport system, they all need to be involved and unafraid to question every aspect of the current transport system. Some of these questions might actually force us to reconsider our consumption patterns and lifestyle choices — what we consider as essential and what is just nice-to-have.

European support for carbon-free transport

At the moment, transport in Europe remains very dependent on oil, with an increasing number of new passenger cars sold, the majority of which use diesel. Europe’s goal is to move away from this reliance on fossil fuels.

The future of Europe’s transport sector is shaped by a number of EU policy documents, including the Europe 2020 strategy, the Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050 and the Roadmap to a single European transport area — towards a competitive and resource-efficient transport system (referred as the 2011 Transport White Paper).

They clearly identify the challenges the transport sector faces: developing a competitive transport system, reducing Europe’s dependence on imported oil and reducing carbon emissions from transport by 60 % by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), while supporting growth and employment.

The EU has earmarked funds to this end. More precisely, close to 20 % of the EU’s Cohesion Policy funds (around EUR 70 billion over the period 2014–2020) is expected to support transport investments. More than half of this amount will support the transition towards an energy-efficient, decarbonised transport sector.

To drive or not to drive?

Although Europeans across Member States and age groups prefer a wide range of transport modes, cars appear to be the most popular option. According to a Eurobarometer survey on urban mobility, half of Europeans use a car every day as a driver or a passenger. However, car use varies significantly across EU countries. While eight out of ten survey respondents in Cyprus use a car every day, less than a quarter do so in Hungary.

The daily use of public transport is quite high in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia. In Cyprus, three quarters of respondents never take public transport. The Netherlands, Denmark and Finland have very high cycling rates with 43 %, 30 % and 28 %, respectively, of respondents cycling every day.

It is not surprising that in the countries with a high rate of daily car use, public transport and bicycles are used less often. It is also not surprising that Europeans aged 15‒24 are by far the most likely group to use public transport at least once a day.

So the question is how to encourage Europeans to opt for greener transport modes.

A wide range of transport options exists, but choosing the one with lowest emissions is not always straightforward. One way to measure your environmental impact is to look at the CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre travelled.

Future of passenger cars: shared and electric?

Cleaner fuels and higher fuel efficiency can help reduce the environmental and health impacts of transport to some degree. EU and national funds have long supported research into alternative fuels, leading to many improvements in fuel efficiency and engines. However, common standards and an extensive fuelling infrastructure also need to be developed to encourage a wider uptake of cleaner fuels. Car buyers/users are more likely to choose alternative-fuel vehicles when they feel confident that they can easily recharge or fuel their car without the risk of running out of fuel on the road.

To facilitate the build-up of infrastructure (e.g. recharging points across Europe) and common technical specifications (e.g. a common plug standard for recharging), the EU has set out a comprehensive alternative fuels strategy covering all modes of transport in its communication on ‘Clean Power for Transport’.

Depending on the distances to be covered, a large vessel has a very different energy need than a compact electric car designed for short trips in the city centre. Given these differences, it is clear that a comprehensive mix of alternative fuels is needed.

The development of the alternative-fuels market, including investments in their infrastructure, is also expected to boost the economy and create new jobs. According to research by the European Climate Foundation, greening cars could create 700 000 extra jobs in the EU by 2025. Moreover, the alternative fuels market could also significantly reduce the EU’s dependence on oil and thus the economic risks linked to fluctuations in supply.

Renewing existing fleets with more efficient models will take time. Given their longer lifespan, replacing aircraft, train and ship fleets, will take more time than for cars and trucks. For passenger cars, car-sharing schemes could actually offer an interesting alternative to the ‘one household-one car’ model, especially for urban residents, and speed up the renewal of the fleet. Car-sharing could also mean savings for the user as the costs of owning a car (purchase, maintenance, insurance, etc.) would be shared by a group of users. It could also reduce the number of cars parked in cities. What used to be a symbol of social status — car ownership — should no longer be perceived as such.

Higher taxes for the more polluting transport modes?

Pricing can provide another push for the user towards greener transport. Taxes applied to more polluting transport modes make them more expensive and are likely to reduce the demand. The opposite is valid for cleaner options: reducing taxes can lure more users to cleaner transport. More than half of Europeans believe that lower prices and better public transport are the best ways to improve urban travel.

Road transport fuel is already heavily taxed across the EU compared to other transport modes. Nevertheless, different types of road fuels are taxed at different rates, influencing the composition of the vehicle fleet. For example, lower taxes and other incentives on diesel in many EU countries resulted in a significant increase in the number of diesel vehicles sold. Although diesel vehicles might have helped lower GHG emissions, their indirect promotion and growing uptake have contributed to air pollution in Europe.

Subsidies and tax breaks are common in the transport sector. Some promote greener options, such as public transport, while others, such as preferential tax treatment of company cars or tax exemptions on the fuel used for international plane and ship travel, result in higher car use or increased consumption of fossil fuels. The overall influence could again be significant. For example, in Germany, Europe’s biggest market for cars, around 64 % of all new cars were registered to companies in 2014.

The high uptake of electric cars in the Netherlands and Norway has been closely linked to a number of incentives offered to potential buyers. However, consumers can easily revert back to combustion-engine cars when such incentives are discontinued. Tax rules for plug-in hybrid and hybrid cars were changed in the Netherlands, effective as of 1 January 2016. This change resulted in a huge and immediate drop in electric car sales. Similar consumer reactions were also observed in other countries, including Denmark.

Making the user pay for infrastructure

Charging for infrastructure use is another effective tool for influencing the price of transport and, hence, the demand. There are different ways to charge for road infrastructure in Europe. Tolls often consist of a price paid for the distance travelled, whereas vignettes allow the vehicle to use a country’s road infrastructure for a given period of time.

In 2015, 27 of the EEA’s member countries had some type of road charge for heavy-duty vehicles (e.g. trucks and buses). The EU’s Eurovignette Directive foresees road-user charges for such vehicles. Regional and national authorities can improve infrastructure charging through a further shift from vignettes to electronic tolls. A wider and more systematic use of fair and efficient tolls based on the polluter/user pays principle will steer users towards more sustainable transport choices.

Public authorities also play a key role in ensuring that different transport systems are connected (e.g. rail to air) and interoperable (e.g. no need to buy separate tickets), and that price signals are consistent. Through their regulatory and funding power, public authorities also help shape the mobility system of the future. For example, they could make sure that decarbonisation and climate adaptation concerns are always taken into account in all infrastructure plans. Public authorities can also facilitate cooperation among different stakeholders, enhancing exchange of know-how and innovative ideas, as well as helping different operators prepare for and cope with climate change impacts. Greater interoperability between European railway services could provide an opportunity to channel larger volumes of freight towards this more environment-friendly mode.

Transport is a complex sector with many different public and private sector stakeholders such as infrastructure and service providers across different modes, vehicle producers, regulators and, finally, users. Many stakeholders only have a partial perspective of the system. Moreover, transport requires many costly and long-lasting investments in infrastructure, aircraft, trains, ships and other transport equipment. A large part of these investments comes from public funds.

Decarbonisation of the transport sector will affect all Europeans and the whole economy. The energy sector in the EU will need to adapt to changes in demand. For example, increased use of electric vehicles will generate extra demand for electricity. In addition, decarbonisation of the transport sector is expected to impact the oil-refining sector, while offering new opportunities in alternative fuels. It can also boost Europe’s competitiveness by enabling European manufacturers to develop and export cutting-edge transport technology.

Smart and innovative mobility

A part of the demand for mobility stems from lifestyle and habits. With rising income levels, more and more Europeans travel to different parts of the world for work and leisure. Air travel, which used to be a memorable experience enjoyed by few people just 50 years ago, has become quite ordinary. The same goes for car ownership, even if that means a private car spends most of its time unused. Consumption patterns have continuously evolved and will continue to change. New holiday destinations such as the Arctic might appear on the tourism menu as a result of climate change. We may, however, decide to opt for greener choices.

Innovative solutions can actually challenge some of these consumption patterns while still meeting the need for mobility. Innovation does not involve engine designs and energy efficiency only, but also covers new business and ownership models. In a world of highly packaged tours, businesses can explore eco-tourism alternatives, such as cycling-camping vacations across Europe, for example.

A network of cycle paths is more likely to convince commuters and leisure drivers to cycle. Some EU countries are already introducing bicycle networks that go beyond urban centres. Germany has recently opened the first stretch of what will become a 100 km cycle ‘autobahn’, connecting 10 cities and four universities in the Ruhr region. The cycle-highway will be completely traffic-free and will mainly use converted disused rail tracks. According to some estimates, the cycle highway is expected to reduce traffic load in the area by up to 50 000 cars every day when completed.

Innovation could also help improve freight logistics and road transport in general. Many trucks are not fully loaded on their return journeys, so improving operational logistics could reduce the number of ‘empty runs’ and consequently the number of trucks on the road. A fleet of self-driving trucks has just driven 2000 km across Europe. Self-driving cars might also be in the pipeline. By regulating speed, they are expected to reduce fuel consumption. They can also enhance the mobility needs of some social groups, such as children and the elderly. Smart transport systems could be built to prevent accidents, and reduce fuel consumption and congestion.

Smart mobility can combine different modes and options (public transport, car-sharing, car rental services, taxis and a bicycle system) to cater for mobility needs by using IT, apps, and smart invoicing.

Innovation and research will certainly be one of the driving forces behind the transition towards smarter and cleaner mobility. So what should we explore next — solar powered tricycles, sails and solar panels on vessels, or first-aid assistance through drones? 


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