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Transport and climate: still a long journey

Luxembourg city. © Nicolas Toulas.

Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from transport is a challenge. Unlike in other sectors, emissions from transport sector have increased the past three decades. The main ways to reduce emissions from transport include using cleaner modes of transport, switching to biofuels, electricity or hydrogen or…less transport. To fight climate change, 195 states have committed to the Paris Agreement and the EU has set its own targets.. Olivier Prigent was the head of task for the ECA landscape review on EU action on energy and Climate Change, published in September 2017 and currently works as attaché in the Private Office of Phil Wynn Owen, ECA Member, together with Catherine Hayes, who works as trainee. They take a closer look on the role transport plays in reaching EU climate targets.

By Catherine Hayes and Olivier Prigent, Private Office of Phil Wynn Owen, ECA Member

Transport and climate change

In 2015, 195 states responsible for 99.75 % of global greenhouse gas emissions signed the Paris Agreement. They committed to keeping the rise in global average temperature this century to ‘well below’ 2°C above pre-industrial levels, aiming to limit it to 1.5°C. To do so, they agreed to rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and to achieve a balance between the amount of greenhouse gases they emitted into and removed from the atmosphere in the second half of this century. The EU has set itself various targets and objectives to reduce its emissions (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 — Greenhouse gas emission trends and targets in the EU, 1990–2050. Source: Trends and projections in Europe 2018, EEA, 2018.

To achieve these targets, all sectors of the economy will have to contribute. Emissions from other sectors have generally fallen since 1990, but the transport sector has bucked the trend. In 2016, transport accounted for 27 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Following a decrease between 2007 and 2013, emissions rose again between 2014 and 2016 due to the economic recovery (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 — Trend in EU greenhouse gas emissions, by sector, 1990–2016. Source: European Environment Agency, EEA greenhouse gas — data viewer, 2018; ECA analysis.

Road transport

Around three-quarters of transport emissions come from road transport, especially from cars. Both water and rail transport emit significantly less greenhouse gases per passenger or per tonne of freight than road transport. Shifting passengers and freight from the roads to water and rail transport could reduce emissions. However, several EU Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) and the ECA have found that this necessary change in transport modes is not being achieved.

The use of renewable fuels could also reduce road transport emissions. Biofuels — produced from biomass or from domestic or industrial waste — account for about 70 % of renewable energy used in transport. The consumption of biofuels in transport has been growing steadily, but also slowly. Concerns around land-use change for biofuels cultivation has limited their development. Several EU SAIs have found that national biofuel targets had been missed.

Other renewable fuels for transport include electricity — provided that it is produced from renewable sources -, hydrogen and synthetic fuels made of hydrogen and carbon dioxide (CO2). The EU also encourages the use of other forms of low-emission alternative fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The expansion of the fleet of vehicles using these fuels is constrained by a lack of refuelling infrastructure, as well as technical limitations, such as the vehicles’ range, weight and cost. Two changes are necessary for these vehicles to become widespread: further research and innovation in energy storage technologies, and the removal of the main market barriers to their use. The EU has also set common standards for alternative-fuels infrastructure, such as recharging and refuelling stations, and requires Member States to develop an infrastructure policy.

Air and maritime transport

Aviation accounted for 3.8 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, but by 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70 % higher than in 2005. According to the European Commission, by 2050, they could increase again by up to seven times.

Since 2012, emissions from flights within the European Economic Area (EEA, which consist of the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway)) have been covered by the EU Emissions Trading System. The EU Emissions Trading System — the EU ETS — allows companies to trade allowances of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, large energy-intensive industrial installations, and, since 2012, aviation emissions from intra-EEA flights. These sectors account for about 45% of the EU greenhouse gas emissions. Flights between EEA and non-EEA countries are covered by an agreement reached under the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) in October 2016, according to which large airline companies must compensate for part of their emissions by acquiring international carbon credits. Participation in this scheme will become mandatory in 2027. The ICAO has also introduced a standard to certify CO2 emissions for aircraft.

Maritime and inland waterways transport accounted for around 4 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Most of these emissions come from international shipping, i.e. shipping between EU and non-EU ports. According to the Third IMO Greenhouse Gas Study 2014 of the International Maritime Organisation, international maritime transport is projected to increase by up to 250 % between 2012 and 2050. These emissions are not accounted for in the EU’s reduction targets and are not currently internationally regulated.

While the fuel consumption of ships is known, reporting and verification processes are still missing. To tackle this problem, the EU has introduced a system for the monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gases emitted by ships. The system provides scope to introduce potential emission reduction measures at a later point. In parallel, the EU has also worked together with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which reached a global agreement on a monitoring, reporting and verifying scheme for shipping greenhouse gases in 2016. In April 2018, the IMO agreed to an objective of reducing the emissions of international shipping by 50 % between 2008 and 2050 — less than the 70 % to 100 % reduction objective supported by the EU.

Upcoming challenges for the transport sector

The transport sector faces three main challenges related to climate change mitigation:

  • The energy transition: the transport sector will have to undergo changes in energy use, switching to less carbon-intensive transport modes and using biofuels and alternative fuels, such as electricity;
  • Research and innovation: achieving significant emissions reductions in transport will require the development of alternative fuels and better energy storage technologies; and
  • Involving EU citizens: the integration of citizens in the energy transition is essential, both for understanding, endorsing and paying for necessary transitions to sustainable transport, and also to support active participation. Legislation will need to be conducive to the development of sustainable transport and acceptable to EU citizens.

By examining how we progress in meeting our ambitious objectives in reducing emissions, the ECA — as the EU’s independent external auditor — can make its contribution to this common effort.

This article was first published on the January-February 2019 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.



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European Court of Auditors

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