Around 24% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the EU, and 14% of all human emissions worldwide, come from the transport sector. A new report published by the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council (EASAC) presented at the World Science Forum in Budapest showcases how important it is for the EU to decarbonize this sector to reach its Paris Agreement pledges (which would keep us under 2°C of warming).
We’re seeing unprecedented ecological upheaval as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels for energy. It’s encouraging that we’re also seeing unprecedented efforts being spent to clean our mess, safeguard nature, and preserve our way of life (most notably the Paris Agreement).
But it’s still not enough. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that we’re still on track to exceed both the 1.5°C and 2°C of warming targets unless governments take “urgent actions” to reduce emissions.
Taking the ‘fossil’ out of fuel
“To limit the global temperature rise to 2°C with a probability of 66% implies an approximate global CO2 budget of between 590 and 1,240 gigatonnes of emissions until 2100,” EASAC reports.
“If the current levels of global emissions from fossil fuels were to be reduced linearly within this global CO2 budget, then the budget would be used up within about 40 years (i.e. by 2060). The use of fossil fuels, including in the transport sector, should be reduced to close to zero within that timeframe.”
For this goal, the report says we need to adopt short-term strategies (even if they are not desirable in the long term) that lead to reductions of GHG emissions as a stop-gap measure. Meanwhile, we should be working to implement sustainable strategies for the future.
One of the promising areas where the EU can do so is transportation. All in all, the EU needs to slash 60% of the emissions from its transport sector by 2050 to meet its pledge as part of the Paris Agreement, the report explains.
“Current EU policies are unlikely to deliver emission reductions quickly enough to limit global warming to less than 2°C,” EASAC adds.
“There is no ‘silver bullet’, so a combination of long- and short-term policy options must be supported at EU, national, regional, and local authority levels […] to help citizens to understand and agree to take action.”
The 13 recommendations listed in the current report fall into three categories:
- Avoiding (reducing) demand for passenger and freight transport services.
- Shifting passengers and freight to transport modes with lower emissions.
- Improving performance through vehicle design, deploying more efficient powertrains, and substituting fossil fuels with low-carbon energy carriers.
The EASAC explains that fossil fuels (gasoline and diesel) currently dominate (95%) the energy market in the transport sector. Transport generates 24% of the EU’s GHG emissions, and out of this 72% come from road transport — 53% from light vehicles and 19% from busses and heavy vehicles (such as transport trucks).
Transport is a vital part of modern society, both from an economic and social point of view. It contributes 6.3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and employs 13 million people in the EU. The report focuses on this sector as it’s more dynamic than construction or industry, the two other big emitters. The EASAC report states that it takes “about 20 years to renew the current vehicle fleet”, which makes reductions in GHG emissions possible in a much quicker timeframe than in other sectors.
However, efforts to reduce emissions from transportation have largely fallen flat as the higher efficiency of modern vehicles is offset by a growing number of cars and trucks in use. Passenger and freight transport in the EU has been growing since the year 2000, and “broadly follows the growth in GDP”, suggesting that this rising trend will persist in the future.
In order to tackle the issue of transport demand and supply, the report recommends reducing demand on the one hand, while improving the quality of transport supply on the other. The former can be achieved by encouraging people to change their behavior (i.e. policies that promote walking, cycling, teleworking, teleconferencing, or web-streaming of events), and shifting transport towards methods with reduced vehicle-kilometers (such as the use of vehicles with larger transport capacity, car sharing, and carpooling). The latter involves calling for more efficient vehicle designs, more efficient conventional and hybrid powertrains, substituting low-carbon fuels (e.g. natural gas or biofuels) for petrol and diesel, and promoting the development and use of vehicles that use alternative energy sources (such as electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles).
One of the most striking aspects of these recommendations is that it does away with the EU’s traditional mindset that ‘reducing mobility is not an option’. As an EU citizen, I can tell you that this is not something the Union tends to do — we’re all about civil liberties and freedom of choice. But the report explains that business as usual is simply not a scenario we can afford, saying that the “need to reduce GHG emissions [warrant] urgent short-term policies to limit and, where possible, to reverse the growth in motorized transport demand.”
The 11 other measures suggested in this report:
Shifting passengers from private cars to public transport; only 20% of passenger transport today is handled by public or privately-owned communal transport, which is not very good.
Taking freight off the road and onto railroad or waterways. The report notes that this approach would take a lot of investment for many businesses to implement, and recommends that the “public and private sectors [jointly invest] in more and better access points for” these transport services.
To improve or introduce regulation that limits demand for oversized vehicles and engines as other recommendations go into effect. This would help keep future emissions under control by preventing such vehicles from hitting the road in the first place.
To improve the average emission performance of passenger cars and light-duty vehicles. This can be achieved by introducing hard deadlines for the phasing-out of fossil fuel engines, or through the introduction of subsidized scrapping schemes that focus specifically on old, polluting vehicles to accelerate the renewal of the vehicle pool.
To improve the rate of market penetration for electric vehicles. Overall emissions from the energy sector are capped by the EU Emission Trading System (ETS), the report explains, so this will lead to an overall reduction in GHG emissions.
To improve the rate of grid penetration for low-carbon energy sources. In essence, this means that we need to install low-carbon sources of energy and decommission old fossil-fuel power plants to supply our new fleet of electric vehicles, industry, and residential consumers. The rate of growth in such energy-generation systems must exceed the rate of growth in total energy demand for it to have a net positive effect, however.
To improve and adapt the design and regulation of electricity markets and tariffs that apply to electric vehicles. Such schemes would make battery-powered electric vehicles more attractive both to consumers and to grid operators.
Tighten but also streamline guidance on the use of biofuels, biogas, natural gas, and methane for transport. “The use of all biofuels for transport should continue to be subjected to strict sustainability criteria, and there should continue to be a cap on the use of conventional biofuels made from food or feed crops,” the report states, adding that biomass used for bioenergy should come from sustainably-managed forests.
To increase resources allocated to the development of synthetic fuels. Hydrogen, methane, and other such fuels can be used in IC engines in the short term to reduce emissions and can be used long-term to power vehicles such as planes or ships.
Support the development of information and communications technologies and autonomous vehicles. This point should be handled with care as on the one hand, such systems can help reduce emissions, but they can also make transport more convenient and as such increase demand (and emissions).
Improve our ability to sustain long-term emission reductions with policy that supports useful innovation, jobs, skills, and interdisciplinary research.
The most pressing need for new policy relates to the short-term options listed in the report, the EASAC writes, as these need to go into effect fast. Even if the reductions in GHG emissions they would provide aren’t groundbreaking, it will add up over time — thereby allowing us to make the most of our carbon budget. In the 10- to 15-year timeframe, we also need to take meaningful action to decarbonize energy production as well, as it supplies all other economic sectors and thus will have the largest impact on our efforts to curb climate change.
The report “Decarbonisation of Transport: options and challenges” can be accessed on EASAC’s page here.