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The timing of setting up T&E was impeccable. Back in the 90s, the Delors Commission had successfully pushed for the Single European Act, which introduced a true single market, real power to the European Parliament at the expense of member states, and majority voting in Council. Three momentous changes; the EU train accelerated like a TGV, and T&E was part of it. Big laws came thick and fast. Road freight was liberalised as was air travel; both started to boom. Some green laws followed and it was high time because the EU was quickly falling behind the US and, in particular, California in cleaning up our air.
T&E was there, arguing there should not only be laws for air quality but also for climate change and fuel economy. And that transport should be priced properly, not only paying for its infrastructure costs but also for its external costs (1993). We were very early skeptics on bioenergy, saying using it for transport would not be very efficient (1994). We were early in calling for climate measures for aviation (1995) and in pointing out the problem of real-world car emissions (1995). All these views are now rather mainstream, but it would be a stretch to say we won them; so much remains to be done.
As Brussels grew in importance, so did the army of lobbyists arguing that any new environmental measure would end the world as we know it – and its industry in particular. We now know that is incredibly overblown. Green laws often only cost a tenth of original cost estimates, without them Europe would have smelled like Beijing, and they spawn new and innovative industries. Wind and solar electricity are famous for it, but the catalyst industry is another good example.
Still, industry got its way in slowing down progress. It started rather innocuously with impact assessments; the most recent twist is the establishment of a first vice-president for ‘better regulation’. This is eurospeak for fewer laws, almost regardless of cost/benefit ratios. It is a cure for a wrongly diagnosed disease – environmental policy is almost the only thing Europeans like about Brussels these days.
But T&E grew too and we can be proud of our track record. Always focused, always respected, sometimes loved, sometimes hated. Kind and in coalition when possible, hard hitting and alone when necessary. Trying to think and act ahead of the curve, but not be afraid of the political heat in Parliament, Council and their strange ‘trilogues’. The oil, car, aviation, shipping, truck and tyre industries have all come to know us quite well.
But other industries, including wind and solar energy, have seen the logic of our electrification strategy, launched last month. The relentless development of wind and solar, and the ever sharper contrast with regular transport fuels in terms of sustainability are key factors in our belief that the future of surface transport is electric, be it bikes, (shared) cars, or trains. Electrification of transport is one of these rare cases in which climate, energy dependence, transport (modal shift, cycling) and industrial policy objectives overlap. It even fits in cultural trends such as vehicle sharing because almost all the cost of an electric vehicle is in the purchase.
There is so much the EU can do to stimulate electric transport, ranging from simpler rules for e-bikes and other small vehicles, ambitious fuel economy standards, technical standards to help ‘roaming’ across different electricity providers, ensuring charging takes place at the right places and the right time, and making rail more prevalent, efficient and electrified.
The past 25 years have been two and a half decades of ‘more of the same’ (planes, trucks and automobiles), and only a little cleaner and better. I hope in 2040 the reverse will be true – 25 years of a lot cleaner, better and smarter, and only a little ‘more of the same’. The EU can make it happen; it just needs to regain a bit of self-confidence. Yes we can, and we will!