Oil prices are low again, making it hard for consumers to consider buying more expensive, alternative fuels or vehicles, even if they would be better for the environment. In fact, carbon emissions from transport and mobility have gone up rather than level off or decrease as in other sectors.

According to Philipp Vohrer, Managing Director of the Renewable Energies Agency (AEE) in Berlin, the EU’s motorways system has expanded to more than 71.000 km, an increase by 30% on 2000 figures. Simultaneously, the EU’s railway network has shrunk to 216.000 km, a decrease by 2%.

This is about public policy and affects citizen engagement. If the instruments for greater intermodal movement between different forms of mobility – from hybrid buses to electric trams to biking stations and subways – then the mental switch to cleaner mobility will not occur.

“Decarbonization is ultimately good for our economy.”
– Marie Donnelly, DG Energy, European Commission

At the insightful annual debate organized by the AEE at the Bavarian Representation to the EU in Brussels, entitled “Decarbonizing the transport sector: what instruments do we need?”, Marie Donnelly, Director of Renewables, Research and Innovation, Energy Efficiency at the Directorate-General for Energy of the European Commission, encouraged participants to explore and create scenarios that would lead to greater intermodality to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions.

The missing link

Transport claims over 30% of energy demand within the European Union and yet no new targets have been set within the EU to slow down or diminish carbon emissions from this important sector that – dominated by road transport – is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the world.

The EU had set a sector target of 10% renewables with transport to be reached by 2020. The share reached so far is at around 5.4%), but again: despite the climate and energy package adopted by the EU Council last year that includes the 27% renewables objective for the EU energy mix by 2030, no separate sectoral target for the transport sector was set, as AEE has pointed out.

In a sector comparison with power and heat, the share of renewables in the transport sector is by far the lowest. Due to the shortcomings of the transport sector in terms of progress of renewables, the outlook for integrating further renewables – whether they be solar panels or biofuels or both at electric charging points – in the transport sector therefore is uncertain, and some might say bleak.

Europe is aware of the dilemma. In its Energy Union package from February 2015, the Commission pledged that Europe is to become “the number one in renewables”. The Commissioner of Energy and Climate claimed “energy efficiency first”. The Commission also pledged “further actions to decarbonize the transport sector”. A review of the Renewable Energy Directive is on the horizon and the Commission should communicate further on this soon.

Other transitional solutions

In the meantime, other possibilities are being pitched and advanced on different fronts, such as introducing a more robust carbon pricing scheme that would build on the Emissions Trading System (ETS). In the wake of the VW scandal, some propose including transport in the ETS to control or curb the influence of the car industry, thus forcing manufacturers to implement and cope with stricter CO2 caps in the years to come. The ETS has its own problems already, the way it is designed today, others argue. To learn more about including renewables in the ETS, click here for ECOFYS insights.

Higher taxes on carbon emissions are another option that could affect consumer behavior and public trends in a positive way. In times of low oil prices, which encourages the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, this might seem an attractive option. But is there a political will for higher taxes? Are consumers ready to pay more for cleaner modes of transport? It’s all about find the right balance in pricing between incentives and results while maintaining citizen liberties in mobility.

Jos Dings, Director of Transport and Environment (T&E) in Brussels advocates for establishing more charging points every 50 kilometers or so along the main axes that connect European cities. He claims the issue with switching to electric vehicles is pricing for starters and the general public apprehension of not having the same range of movement. He also advocates moving away from metal boxes to other modes of transport within cities where automobile congestion is becoming unbearable.

“The technology approach to fuels is dead […] solar and wind energies show true revolution in costs.” – Jos Dings, T&E Director

And then there are biofuels: sustainability standards have started to be implemented, but indirect land use remain a serious issue to tackle scientifically and politically. At the Brussels debate organized by the AEE, Stefan Schreiber, President of the European Biodiesel Board (EBB) pointed to the assets of biofuels for cleaner transport.

“The 10% target of the EU for renewables in the transport sector by 2020 has been a big step forward”, he said. “The fragmentation of the fuels market in Europe was a lot bigger before the passage of this target. We risk giving up the progress we have made”, Schreiber warned against the backdrop of a missing sectoral target for transport for 2030.

Sustainably produced biofuels are not the panacea to solve our problems in greening transport. But they seem to be part of a bigger solution in which different renewable technologies, amongst them biofuels, contribute to decarbonizing transport. The European Union should not shirk from its role in promoting renewable transport solutions.


Writer: Stuart Reigeluth is Founder of Revolve Media.