Barroso’s decarbonisation aspiration should be welcomed; but now let’s see the detail

Editorial by Ulla Rasmussen, T&E President

After a long summer of uncertainty, José Manuel Barroso has been reappointed in his post of Commission president for another five years. And in his one statement on transport, he has hit the nail right on the head.

Sketch of some documents (default image for news

[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]As the Commission has the unique right to propose new laws, an important role of the president is to be one of the first to highlight future challenges and create support for their solutions. His attempt for the next five years is the 40-page document ‘Political Guidelines for the Next Commission’.

These guidelines are designed to keep many people happy, but nevertheless there are some striking passages. One of them is the only passage where transport is mentioned: ‘The next Commission needs to maintain the momentum towards a low-emission economy, and in particular towards decarbonising our electricity supply and the transport sector.’

It is impossible to express more clearly that transport should be subordinate to our climate objectives, rather than the other way round, as the Commission’s transport department has always tried to maintain. And Barroso is right. Europe needs to cut emissions, start to close the immense budget deficits, and create new jobs now unemployment is running at post-war record levels.

The wrong response is to start building more infrastructure. This just increases emissions, saves old construction jobs rather than creates new high-skilled ones, and increases deficits. The money will not be there anyway, and transport volumes have gone down so that new capacity is needed less than ever.

The right response is therefore, more than ever, to develop the smart, low-carbon solutions that cut emissions, bring skilled jobs, cost governments nothing, and on the contrary stem the steady outflow of resources for oil imports. It is to focus on road pricing and fuel taxation. This can reduce the need to increase labour taxes and hence protect the environment and jobs at the same time.

Climate should be at the heart of transport policy. Strong interim targets for transport energy demand and decarbonisation should be set, spending, pricing, speed policy, and technology deployment should all be guided by climate objectives.

Barroso’s guidelines are the overture to the opera, but they are not the opera itself. They set out the challenge – the need to strive for a low-emission economy, in particular decarbonising electricity and transport. But there are several more acts before the end of the performance. For these to happen, we need action that will result from hard and imaginative decisions that have to be taken, regardless of the power of traditional industrial interests.

We therefore applaud the aspiration he sets out in his guidelines for the next five years. But recent events suggest some scepticism is in order. In May Barroso gave the impression he was aware of the need to make transport a priority in tackling climate change. A month later the Commission’s paper on updating the Common Transport Policy barely mentioned climate change. We now eagerly await the substance that will make Barroso’s aspiration a reality, substance that has been sadly absent so far.