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By churning out gigatonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases we are conducting a huge and dangerous experiment with our planet. But it’s not an experiment we are in control of. The new IPCC report shows that the window to limit global warming to less than 2°C – deemed more or less safe – let alone 1.5°C is narrowing very fast. Such runaway climate change would be ruinous. Not just financially, or even in terms of lives lost but also since it could lead to a breakdown of order and humanity. What will Europe do when, instead of thousands, millions of climate refugees come knocking on our doors? Will we let them in? And if not, what will we do? These are questions one prefers not to think about, but if history is any guide, it won’t be pretty.
But even if things look pretty dire, we still have a choice. We have most of the tools we need to halt dangerous climate change already. We have cheap and reliable clean electricity; we know how to make houses energy efficient; we have zero-emission vehicles that could be rolled out in a major way in the next few years. Even for airplanes we have solutions: synthetic fuels. In this case, there will be a cost, but we can gradually start rolling them out in Europe so the technology can mature and costs can start coming down.
But we need to act now and nowhere is that more clear than in transport. Vehicles, vessels and planes are Europe’s largest and fastest growing climate problem. In road transport the main reason for the lack of progress is car industry cheating and 20 years of inaction by truckmakers who have managed to make zero progress on electric trucks. It took Tesla’s electric semi to wake truckmakers from their long slumber. The consequences of all this are real: on the road there has been no improvement in new car CO2 emissions for over five years and an improvement of just half a percent per year since 2000. If, instead of manipulating lab tests, carmakers had kept the gap between real world and lab tests stable at 2000 levels and had genuinely complied first with their voluntary targets, and then with the EU’s legal targets, 264 million tonnes of CO2 emissions would have been avoided and the EU’s car emissions would be 47 million tonnes lower, a level not observed since 1996. This has cost drivers a staggering €150 billion. That would have made a world of difference. But they didn’t and that’s why car emissions are out of control and why we can’t let carmakers off the hook again.
So why are decision-makers still wavering? Fundamentally, carmakers, just like other businesses, want to be left alone and make money selling the same old technology – combustion engines. So, you’ll never get their support for regulations that make a difference. But things become much more difficult when trade unions and the Commission start making misleading claims about job losses deliberately creating confusion, based on the interim results of a study that IG Metall has now said it won’t publish. The studies that have actually been published, many of which unions participated in, demonstrate the economic, industrial and employment benefits for transitioning faster to low and zero-emission vehicles. There is never perfect information in the run-up to important decisions but it is clear that from an economic point of view we can and actually need to be more ambitious on car CO2 emissions than what the Commission has proposed.
But the key reason to be more ambitious is the climate. If we adopt the Commission proposal, EU member states will likely miss their binding 2030 climate targets. The Commission has skillfully tried to obscure this in its 2030 modelling and impact assessments (as explained in this recent report), but it’s actually very simple maths. If you want overall transport emissions to decrease by 30% by 2030, your new car and truck fleet needs to be 30% cleaner well before 2030.
Another simple truth is that unless we make the vehicle regulations much more robust – ie, we start testing vehicle CO2 on the road and prioritising zero-emission vehicle technologies that are indispensable long-term – the estimated CO2 savings won’t actually happen. The simple truth is that if we are to meet the long-term 2°C target, all major sectors will have to be near zero emission in 2050. MEPs and environment ministers should see the scale of the task at hand and agree measures that will put new cars and vans on a pathway to zero emissions by 2035.
After a scorchingly hot summer, Brussels is now gearing up for an equally ‘hot’ autumn. On the legislative agenda are Parliament and Council votes on the car and truck CO2 files, a Commission position on ICAO’s flawed emissions deal for aviation and a Commission proposal for a mid-century decarbonisation strategy. The stakes (and temperatures) couldn’t be higher.