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  • There’s good news – as long as you don’t stick your head in the sand

    Opinion by Jos Dings - T&E Director Every year the European Environment Agency publishes a fat report on the latest trends in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. The latest one deals with developments in 2010, but has figures going back to 1990. A good opportunity then to look back and see whether a close inspection reveals any lessons. And indeed it does.


    Let’s start with a headline figure: overall trends in road transport emissions. Since 1990 they are up by 21%; that’s no news. But they are down by 5% since their peak in 2007, and back to 2002 levels. Too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes, and the reason is biofuels.

    In 2002 biofuel blending was almost non-existent, in 2010 they already made up 4% of the mix. Because accounting conventions allow these to be considered zero emissions, that’s a 4% reduction. But increasing amounts of evidence suggest that typical EU biofuels emit about as much CO2 as fossil fuels, so no savings at all. These flawed accounting conventions need to be corrected quickly, because as things stand, you could blend 70% biofuels into your overall mix and voilà, you have the 70% emissions reduction that the transport white paper seeks to achieve!

    What is the gain from pretending emissions are so much lower than they are in reality? Because many environment ministers have to hit their Kyoto and EU ‘20-20-20’ climate package targets, on-paper reductions are very attractive. But the side-effect will be that rainforests in the developing world will be razed to make the biofuels for our lorries and planes, leaving developing countries to deal with the damage. And all because the full lifecycle impact of a biofuel has not been factored into the accounting procedure.

    Let’s now take a deeper dive and look how emissions trends compare with GDP. After all, transport and GDP are closely linked, no? Well, no indeed.

    There is huge variation between countries. The four countries that have the best record in decoupling economic growth from transport emissions (Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, Finland) have the strongest and most solid economies in Europe. In parallel, the countries whose emissions are outstripping their growth (Greece, Portugal, Spain) are in economic trouble, having relied too much on the wonders of investment in physical infrastructure. They did not get the growth they hoped for, but they got debt, huge oil import bills, and high CO2 emissions. These dry figures challenge the accepted belief that you can’t have economic growth without an increase in emissions.

    Two other countries that have not decoupled transport emissions from GDP are Luxembourg and Austria, but there are different reasons for this. They are both transit countries who keep their diesel prices low to attract ‘fuel tourism’ – lorry drivers who fill up just inside the border and then drive 3000 kilometres. This stops their neighbours from making the most of fuel taxes. Luxembourg is effectively stealing €1400 per person per year from its neighbouring states – I don’t know why the neighbours tolerate it. Thankfully, in a separate report, the Commission is highly critical of Luxembourg’s taxation practices.

    A third lesson is in shipping – how to make big CO2 cuts without any technological breakthrough.  Shipping emissions are 15% below their 2007 peak, despite EU sea freight being back at pre-crisis levels. The only realistic explanation is ‘slow steaming’ i.e. going much slower with the same ships and still getting the goods to their destination. Ensuring that ship speeds go down and stay down would clearly help reach climate targets, and in a future of high oil prices, such a policy becomes a win-win. Slow steaming is the future, and should be regulated to ensure it continues.

    Even the driest figures tell their stories if you look closely. They can teach us lessons on biofuels, on fuel taxation, slow steaming, and even on economic development models. If only we could all be attentive pupils.