Europe Promises Technology-Neutral Pathway for Cutting Transport Emissions

On 9 December, the European Commission laid down its vision for the future of the transport sector by presenting a ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’. This new and highly anticipated plan aims to strengthen the role played by the mobility ecosystem in pursuing the EU Green Deal by setting out various milestones for each mode of transport to ultimately become zero-emission. According to the Commission’s plan, by 2030, at least 30 million zero-emission road vehicles should be in operation, high-speed rail traffic should double, and zero-emission ocean-going vessels should become market ready. Only five years later, zero-emission large aircrafts should become ready for market, and by 2050, nearly all cars, vans and heavy-duty vehicles should be zero-emission while rail freight will have doubled and high-speed rail tripled.

Ambitious though these various milestones are, the Commission has however refrained from setting  too prescriptive a course of action for each mode of transport, in order to uphold the principle of technology-neutrality. As the Strategy states, “Maintaining technology-neutrality across all modes is key, but this should not lead to inaction on eliminating fossil fuel-based solutions.”

For road transport, for example, the Strategy does not set a phase-out date for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, despite signals following the release of the 2030 Climate Target Plan, that the Commission might assess “at what point in time internal combustion engines in cars should stop coming to the market”. This prudence may in part be due to the fact that while a growing number of national, regional and state governments in Europe and globally have announced time frames for phasing out sales of new ICE vehicles or only allowing new sales to be for electric vehicles, leading European vehicle markets such as Germany are still in the process of assessing binding measures to phase-out fossil-fuel vehicles.

Meanwhile, due to the current lack of market-ready zero-emission technologies for the aviation and maritime transport sectors, the Strategy lays out a so-called “basket of measures” to reduce emissions, without setting a defined course of action. From boosting sustainable renewable and low-carbon fuels to investing in infrastructure and energy efficiency design measures, the Commission stresses in each case that global actions at the level of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) or International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) will be “critical” for achieving significant reductions, due to international competition in these sectors.

By emphasizing the need to have a technology-neutral approach, the European Commission seems to draw from some recent negative experiences in road transport. Only a few years ago, policymakers and industry stakeholders who had hailed the foreseen reduction in CO2 emissions generated by the shift from petrol- to diesel-fueled vehicles, were caught by surprise and forced to scale down the use of this technology once its real impact on air pollution was revealed. More recently, several stakeholders have suggested that the real-world CO2 emissions of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which have been welcomed as a possible intermediary solution in the path towards full electrification, are two to four times higher than official values.

Be that as it may, the Strategy provides ample indication of what the Commission considers as the most promising options for the reduction of emissions from each transport mode – sustainable liquid and gaseous fuels for aviation and maritime transport, to electricity and hydrogen for road and rail transport. These are surely needed to provide legal certainty to an industry which will be mobilising significant financial resources in order to become more sustainable in line with the Commission’s Strategy, as well as by national governments who are set to use the EU’s €750 billion COVID-19 recovery instrument to sustain this transition.  As the European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, said while presenting the new Strategy, “We need to provide businesses a stable framework for the green investments they will need to make over the coming decades.”

In the coming months and years, the European Commission is expected to continue to honor its commitment to a technology-neutral approach in the legislative initiatives that will be proposed as part of the Strategy. At the same time, key initiatives such as a revision of an EU Directive on alternative fuel infrastructures, expected in June 2021, will need to provide a clearer assessment of the infrastructure required to sustain the sector’s investments in low- and zero-emission technologies. This Strategy and the Commission’s legislative action plan will for the present serve as basis for a continuous dialogue between policymakers and industry stakeholders, to ensure that a transport sector already pressured by the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic avoids locking its investments into new technologies that could create additional systemic dependencies and fail to achieve the EU’s vision for a more sustainable and smart transport sector.  At the same time, and especially in light of the new climate priorities of the incoming administration in the United States, businesses around the world will need to consider carefully how the EU’s ambitions in the field of transport may lay the groundwork for a strengthened global green mobility agenda.

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