An opportunity for low-carbon transport that costs nothing

Editorial by Jos Dings, T&E Director

There’s a golden opportunity just waiting to be seized in the field of European transport, but the first indications are that it will be missed.

Sketch of some documents (default image for news

Every 10 years or so, the Commission revises the EU’s Common Transport Policy. The present one came out in 2001, the one before in 1992. It’s supposed to be the guiding document behind European transport for a decade. That probably makes it sound more important than it really is, but it’s still significant as a guide to the strategy EU transport policy should be taking.

With transport the only industrial sector not to have reduced its greenhouse gases, the latest update of Europe’s transport policy is of greater importance than usual. We were led to believe by José Manuel Barroso and other leading officials that the updated policy would be the framework for tackling transport. Yet a communication published in June on how the Commission sees the update manifestly fails to offer any hint of a strategy, or even an order of priorities. Solutions to Europe’s dizzying array of transport-related problems are conspicuous by their absence.

So what sort of things should be in an update of the EU’s Common Transport Policy?

Transport ministries are rarely more than spending ministries. All too often their primary goal in life is to secure as much funding as possible from their finance ministry to build as much infrastructure as possible. But their demands for cash are increasingly falling on deaf ears, for two reasons: money is drying up, and transport volume projections, the primary justification for spending, are being adjusted downwards.

That is an opportunity not a threat. It is an opportunity to think of different ways of tackling mobility problems. Demand management, including pricing strategies such as road tolls, will come to the fore as the counterbalance to what you might call ‘infrastructure supply management’.

And it’s an opportunity for a low-carbon transport strategy that won’t cost governments very much, or even anything. Road pricing, fuel taxation, smart parking policies can solve mobility problems, reduce pollution and bring in much-needed money for cash-strapped finance ministries. If policymakers think smartly they can link reductions in labour taxes to these instruments. That would cut pollution, and boost employment – a win-win in these troubled times.

The climate and energy crisis will only reinforce the need to take innovative measures in transport. Transport CO2 emissions are up by 36% on 1990 levels, other sectors have cut their emissions by 9%. Without a serious climate strategy for transport, we will never be able to decarbonise our society by 2050.

The relatively easy bit is to set efficiency standards for all vehicles. Such a move helps the environment, European industry and European citizens, and means lower emissions, fewer energy imports, and more job creation in the low-carbon tech sector. It also means lower fuel bills. For cars, the EU made a move in the right direction last December with its new targets, but it could and should have gone much further. For other vehicles, like vans, lorries, aircraft and
ships, the work has hardly begun. It’s time to get moving, and not let unfounded threats from the car industry hold back the progress that’s urgently needed.

In a number of other areas, good ideas have ended up as bad policy. Reducing the CO2 emissions from transport fuel production is a smart move, but raising a volume target for biofuels that could end up actually increasing emissions is a potential disaster.

Road freight should cut its emissions and be made safer. The way to achieve that is not to allow heavier, longer trucks as the road lobby wants. That will just make transport even cheaper, and increase demand. We should make trucks more fuel efficient, smarter and safer instead.

Instead of handing out subsidies for buyers of new cars, we should raise fuel taxes and reform vehicle taxes to steer demand for transport and vehicles in a greener direction.

Transport policy-makers across Europe need to stop building and start thinking. It’s time to demonstrate that a better economy can go hand in hand with less and smarter transport. There is still time – the Commission communication in June was just that, a ‘communication’. Let’s hope that by the time it evolves into the white paper that will influence European transport for a decade, it is a genuine strategy for our times and not just a collection of meaningless statements of the obvious that it is now.