Europe’s 2013 climate action: glass empty or almost half full?

April 7, 2014

2013 will – again – not go down in the history books as the year that Europe really got serious about tackling transport’s many environmental issues. On the headline level we actually see quite the contrary: the political focus is more on saving existing jobs than creating new ones, and the ‘climate and energy’ discussion is skewed more towards energy than climate than ever before.Geopolitically, Europe is moving towards North America and wants to conclude far-reaching free trade agreements with Canada and the US. There may be many good reasons for this, but we can only hope that a desire to emulate the North American model – relying on cheap and dirty fossil energy – is not one of them.

Take a detailed look though and one could argue that the glass is a little more than empty, but surely not half full. Arguably the biggest real decision of the year was to finally put the 95g/km of average CO2 for cars in 2020 in Europe’s rulebook, but only after an incredibly heavy-handed German intervention to water it down by 5 g/km or so. While this agreement still constitutes progress of sorts, the final deal for less noisy cars and trucks was hopelessly weak, despite stacks of evidence with great benefit/cost ratios. It simply did not send political pulses racing fast enough.

Throughout 2013 Europe’s clean fuels policy remained stubbornly stuck. Europe still could not make up its mind about what to do with biofuels, with a series of very tight but still inconclusive votes in Parliament and Council. The same is true for dirty fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel from tar sands – about which our North American friends have become quite excited, and (consequently, it is whispered) the European Commission very hesitant to act on. But rounder, safer and cleaner lorries – a long-standing campaign objective of T&E – came a step closer with a Commission proposal allowing more space for the cabin. This is a necessary first step. But, regrettably, Europe made no progress in the area of pricing, be it fuel taxation or road charging.

Shipping took some baby steps towards addressing its carbon footprint with a proposal from the Commission to start monitoring CO2 emissions for ships using EU ports. But Russia spoiled the mood with a nakedly political attempt to delay engine NOx standards unanimously agreed in 2008.

And on aviation, ICAO almost succeeded in its Assembly to completely emasculate Europe’s inclusion of the sector in the emissions trading system in exchange for a vague promise to ‘develop’ (note: not ‘implement’) a global measure for 2020. Aviation remains transport policy’s greatest anomaly – the most carbon-intensive transport mode receiving the most subsidies, be it in the form of no fuel tax, no VAT, loads of state aid, and huge research grants.

Once again in 2013 we were a very active, visible and, at times, effective player in all of these arenas. We again managed to expand, resulting in record numbers of publications, events and media coverage, without sacrificing quality and efficiency. We rode, and sometimes helped create, the high political waves surrounding cars and aviation. 

None of this could have happened without the active involvement of our great network of members, which is expanding again too. European decision-making seems to be taking place less and less in Brussels and more and more in the 28 capitals, which makes effective cooperation across the whole continent more important than ever. 

We try to be critical as well as constructive, idealistic as well as pragmatic, science-based as well as media savvy, proud of what we achieve as well as recognising it’s nowhere near enough yet. 

And that brings me back to where I started. Not only will 2014 be the year in which quite a few of the issues above will find their conclusion, but it will also be an opportunity to focus on the big picture and think strategically about what needs to be done in the next five years with a new Commission and Parliament. 

And hopefully that will allow me to start a future annual review with a glowing headline instead of a rather gloomy one – that Europe has finally figured out that making transport sustainable is not only morally and ethically the right thing to do, but simply the smartest thing to do for this wonderful continent.

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