Heavy duty trucks on Europe’s roads have a disproportionate impact. While they make up just 2% of road vehicles, trucks emit around 23% of road traffic CO2 emissions and are a major source of air pollution on our roads. Truck CO2 emissions have increased by more than one-third since 1990, and without sustained regulatory action, truck emissions will further increase by 21% by 2030.
The taxes paid by trucks today do not come close to covering the real costs of their impacts on infrastructure, other road users or the environment. In six EU countries trucks even pay a lower diesel tax than cars! The good news is that road user charging works, both in theory and in practice, to clean up freight transport.
What’s the problem?
Despite the tried-and-tested benefits of road user charging: better traffic management, reduced congestion, improved road safety and reduced emissions; it is not mandatory and is not yet used across the whole EU. It is a mixed picture. Many EU countries levy km-charges on trucks while others require annual or monthly vignettes. The decisive trend, however, is towards distance-based tolling that comes closer to reflecting the real costs that trucks impose on society.
The current EU rules set maximum limits to how much of the air pollution, noise and congestion costs can be recovered in the charge. In some cases the limits are dramatically less than the real costs. However, the current law does not allow national governments to charge for the costs of climate-changing emissions from trucks, or the costs linked to the severity of truck collisions (trucks are involved in 14% of fatal collisions – despite making up only 2% of vehicles).
The EU sets rules that member states must comply with if they choose to introduce truck tolls. The rules are defined in the “Eurovignette” law. The third revision of this directive, agreed in September 2011, allows for certain external costs, such as air pollution, noise and congestion, to be charged for. Trucks can be charged for such ‘externalities’ on all motorways.
The Commission proposed a review of this directive in 2017, Parliament set out its position in October 2018 and, after many lengthy delays, Council arrived at its position in December 2020. Trilogues are ongoing and a key objective – common to both the Parliament and Council’s positions – is the differentiation of road tolls based on CO2 emissions. Such differentiation will help reduce the CO2 emissions from the transport sector by encouraging cleaner transport operations, and it will be a vital lever in the shift to zero-emission trucking.
What should be done?
Trucks should pay for the damage caused on all roads across Europe, including infrastructure wear and tear, collisions, climate change, air pollution, noise and congestion. This will lead to better traffic management, smarter route planning, more efficient logistics, a shift to cleaner and quieter trucks, fewer kilometres driven and an overall reduction of all of those impacts. Switzerland has moved most decisively in this direction, where lorries pay a fair price for every km driven, instead of leaving that bill to be picked up by society and taxpayers.
There is some debate about whether the EU should also set a framework for road pricing for cars. There are several different systems in place already: many countries collect motorway tolls or require vignettes for cars, Portugal has a km-fee for motorways, and many cities levy congestion charges, or fees to enter low-emissions zones. EU law gives a lot of flexibility to design systems to meet different objectives and importantly does not allow road charges to discriminate against foreign vehicles, so charges must apply equally to domestic and foreign drivers.
National (or local) governments should be free to decide how to use the revenues from road charging. But the best use for the money raised from charging for pollution and congestion is to reduce the tax bill for workers and businesses, to stimulate a shift to a more sustainable economy.