Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 22 Dec 2022
9 min read
Photo: © Gülcin Karadeniz / EEA

The economic recession led to reduced pollutant emissions by lowering transport demand. Transport is still responsible for 25% of EU greenhouse gas emissions, and contributes significantly to air pollution, noise and habitat fragmentation.

While progress has been made in meeting certain policy objectives, including efficiency and short-term greenhouse gas reduction targets, major challenges remain toward meeting longer term objectives. The European Commission's target of a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will require significant additional measures. 


Transport is highly dependent on oil. 95% of all kilometres travelled (both passenger and freight) in the EU are powered by oil derived fuels (TERM 2014 report).[1] The combustion of this oil releases pollution in the form of emissions, which place significant burdens on human health and the environment. In 2012, the transport sector (including bunker fuels) accounted for 24.3% of total EU GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.

Emissions of air pollutants from transport have generally declined over the past two decades. However, around 90% of city dwellers in the European Union (EU) are still exposed to air pollutants at levels deemed harmful to health by the World Health Organization (WHO), and transport is a large contributor to this. Transport also causes noise impacts. Road traffic exposes more people to harmful levels of noise than any other source, followed by rail and aircraft (see SOER 2015 briefing on noise). Data also show that fragmentation due to transport infrastructure and urban sprawl constitutes a growing threat to many wildlife populations via reduced connectivity among habitats, becoming increasingly isolated.

Transport demand, fuel consumption, and transport-related GHG emissions have all increased since 1990. They peaked around the beginning of the economic crisis and have shown unstable trends since.

EU measures to reduce transport emissions have included the introduction of fuel-quality standards and exhaust-emission limits for air pollutants and CO2. They have also included the incorporation of the transport sector into national emission-limit calculations for both air pollutants[2] and GHGs (under the EU Effort Sharing Decision).[3]

The European Commission's White Paper on Transport[4] is a further political response to these issues. It was designed to guide future policy developments in the transport sector over the next decade and in accordance with the long-term EU objective to reduce GHG emissions by 80–95% by 2050.[5] The White Paper calls for a reduction of CO2 from transport of at least 60% by 2050 from 1990 levels. It envisages the target being met by a combination of new technology and more efficient use of existing technology.

Key trends

Transport demand

Transport volume growth and associated environmental pressures generally follow economic development (see Figure 1). International aviation has experienced the largest percentage increase in passenger kilometres from 1995 levels (+ 66%). Aviation in the EU showed annual increases of up to 7.5% until 2007, growing again by 10% between 2010 and 2011 and stabilising in 2012. Car travel has increased significantly in the last decades, but has remained below its 2009 peak in 2012. In recent decades, the growth in transport demand has often negated or limited many of the environmental benefits brought by improved technology. Europe's challenge is therefore to achieve future economic development without increasing pressures on the environment.

Figure 1: EU transport demand by mode compared with GDP

Greenhouse gases

EU transport (including international aviation but excluding international maritime) GHG emissions are currently 20.5% above 1990 levels (Figure 2).  Transport is the only sector of the economy to have seen such a large increase in emissions in this period. Emissions from international aviation in the EEA-33 countries have more than doubled since 1990, while international maritime emissions increased by 34%, and road transport emissions increased by 20%. Rail transport and inland navigation are the modes of transport to have seen a decrease in GHG emissions compared to 1990, falling by 46% and 17% respectively in the EEA-33 compared to 2012.

Figure 2: EU transport emissions of greenhouse gases

On a more positive note, the transport sector shows progress towards the goal of achieving a 10% share of renewable energy by 2020 in each Member State. The average EU-28 share of renewable energy in transport increased from 3.4% in 2011 to 5.1% in 2012.

The use of renewable electricity in road transport has also increased, but remains marginal compared to the amount of biofuels consumed. Pure electric vehicles currently comprise only 0.04% of the total fleet and the latest data show that their share in EU-27 new car registrations is only 0.22%.

The efficiency of new cars has also improved, encouraged by EU regulations.[6] The average CO2 emissions level of a new car sold in 2013 was 127 g of carbon dioxide per kilometre, significantly below the 2015 target of 130 g. However, manufacturers will have to keep reducing emissions levels to meet the target of 95g CO2/km by 2021. 

Figure 3: Trend in emissions of air pollutants from transport (EEA-33)

Air pollutants

Unlike the trend for GHGs, emissions of the main air pollutants from transport have generally declined over the past two decades (Figure 3). However, the decreases for certain pollutants (SOx, NOx and PM), are much less when emissions from international shipping are taken into account. The introduction of catalytic converters, progressively stricter Euro emission standards, and increasingly strict fuel quality standards are the main factors behind past reductions.

A less positive development is the increase in the fraction of NOx emitted as NO2 by diesel vehicles, leading to exceedances of NO2 values in many European cities. Increasing traffic volumes, coupled with the promotion of diesel vehicles in many EU Member States, have thus become one of the main reasons why countries do not meet EU air quality regulations.

To make matters worse, NOx emissions from diesel vehicles under real-world driving conditions often exceed the test-cycle limits specified in the Euro emission standards, a problem that also affects official fuel consumption and CO2-emission values. In general, an average diesel car emits more PM and NOX than petrol, but less CO2. Recent data show that the CO2 difference is decreasing.


Before the economic crisis, Europeans were travelling more than ever before (see SOER 2015 briefing on tourism). Based on past trends, the European Commission's 60% transport GHG reduction target by 2050 will not be met. Meeting these targets will therefore require fundamental transitions in the European transport sector.

One of these transitions is the shift to alternative fuel vehicles. However, too few alternative fuel vehicles (electric, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen vehicles) are currently being sold. Consumers are reluctant to purchase these vehicles, and manufacturers are deterred from investing further in them. The European Commission has recently submitted a proposal to significantly develop the infrastructure for alternative fuels as a way of addressing the problem of low uptake of vehicles and lack of infrastructure.[7] As well as delivering clear environmental benefits (reducing average CO2 emissions and reducing air pollutant emissions etc.), the uptake of new technologies will also reduce Europe's dependency on oil.

However, changes in the transport sector — such as renewing an entire country's fleet of vehicles — require time to take effect. Delivery of benefits from an uptake of new vehicle technologies also depends on developments in other sectors, such as clean electricity production to cope with increasing demand (while complying with the Emissions Trading System (ETS) agreements). Moreover, alternative fuel vehicles will not on their own solve other existing problems such as congestion levels, accidents and road safety, or noise levels. For this reason, additional fundamental changes in the way Europe transports passengers and goods are needed.

These additional changes include avoiding the use of transportation where possible; shifting necessary transport from environmentally harmful modes to more environmentally friendly modes; and improving the efficiency of all modes of transport. It is essential for the public to accept the need for these changes. Public acceptance is critical to overcoming the two main barriers for implementation of these changes: lack of political will and lack of funding.[8]

Fortunately, signs of a potential cultural change have already been identified in recent research. In countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and the USA, car travel demand appears to be decreasing, remaining at the same level, or growing only slowly.[9][10][11] A number of reasons have been suggested for this change, including improved public transport, fuel prices, and changes in the symbolic value attached to vehicles.[12][11][13]

Aviation is another source of environmental pressures, and there has been extensive debate in recent years over whether international aviation should be included in the EU ETS. ICAO, the UN agency responsible for International Civil Aviation, recently agreed to develop by 2016 a global market-based mechanism to tackle emissions, to come into force in 2020. Nevertheless, the aviation sector remains exempt from fuel taxation, and ticket purchases are not subject to VAT, neither of which helps to address aviation transport demand.

In the longer-term, Europe will need a coordinated approach, which integrates all of the above policy measures: alternative-fuel vehicles, transport avoidance, shifting to less environmentally damaging modes of transport, new infrastructure, and financial measures. In order to gain public support, this coordinated approach must aim to address not just the environmental impacts of the transport system. It must also create better health and improved quality of life for Europe's citizens.


[1] EEA (2014), Focusing on environmental pressures from longdistance transport. TERM 2014: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, EEA Report No 7/2014, European Environment Agency.

[2] EU (2001), Directive 2001/81/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2001 on national emission ceilings for certain atmospheric pollutants (OJ L 309, 27.11.2001, pp. 22–30)

[3] EU (2009), Decision No 406/2009/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the effort of Member States to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Community's greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments up to 2020, OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, pp. 136–148.

[4] EC (2011), White paper: Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area — Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system, COM(2011) 144 final, Brussels, 28.3.2011.

[5] EC (2011), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — A Roadmap for moving to a competitive low carbon economy in 2050, COM(2011) 112 final, Brussels, 8.3.2011.

[6] Such as EU (2009), Regulation (EC) No 443/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 setting emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the Community’s integrated approach to reduce CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles, OJ L 140, 5.6.2009, pp. 1–15.

[7] EC (2013), Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament on the deployment of alternative fuels infrastructure, COM(2013) 18 final, Brussels, 14.01.2013.

[8] Banister, D. (2008), 'The sustainable mobility paradigm', Transport Policy 15(2), pp. 73–80.

[9] Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2011), '"Peak Car Use": Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence', World Transport, Policy & Practice 17.2, pp. 31–42.

[10] Puentes, R. and Tomer, A. (2008), The Road…Less Traveled: An Analysis of Vehicle Miles Traveled Trends in the U.S., Brookings.

[11] Kuhnimhof, T., Buehler, R. and Dargay, J. (2011), 'A New Generation: Travel Trends for Young Germans and Britons', Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1(2230), pp. 58–67.

[12] Tapio, P. (2005), 'Towards a theory of decoupling: degrees of decoupling in the EU and the case of road traffic in Finland between 1970 and 2001', Transport Policy 12(2), pp. 137–151.

[13] Goodwin, P. (2012), Peak Travel, Peak Car and the Future of Mobility: Evidence, Unresolved Issues, Policy Implications, and a Research Agenda, accessed 24 February  2014.


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