Time to give the transport sector the predictability needed to flourish in a zero-emissions economy

Despite its clear potential for clean transportation, electro-mobility still does not seem to be the motor driving Europe’s economic, climate, and industrial policy, writes Folker Franz.

Folker Franz is Senior Vice-President at ABB Europe and currently chairs the Platform for Electro-Mobility, an industry-NGO coalition.

As we plan the future of mobility, considering how European citizens and goods will move around in coming decades, Europe is at a crossroads. We can stay on our current path, powering our cars, planes, trains, and ships with fossil fuels, wasting capital while increasing greenhouse gas emissions and polluting the local air. Or, we can turn off this route and chart a new course, accelerating our transportation systems towards electro-mobility, creating new jobs in growing markets, while cleaning the air and cutting carbon emissions.

The route we choose now will determine whether Europe will succeed in honoring its commitments under the Paris Agreement, goals that will be virtually unattainable if we continue to rely on petroleum fuels to move ourselves and our goods around.

When ministers convene on September 20 for the Transport Council meeting, the European Union’s strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral economy is on the agenda. As EU Heads of States and Governments will likely endorse this vision next month, nothing short of a full-throated commitment from the Transport Council to zero emission mobility by 2050 will suffice.

Fortunately, the policymakers can rest assured that the technology is ready to deliver on these goals. The electrification of personal vehicles has made great leaps in recent years. There are already 100 electric car models available in Europe, and those offerings will more than double in just two years, and could reach as many as 333 by the middle of next decade. Plummeting battery costs and healthy government incentives are helping rates of EV adoption outpace even the most ambitious projections, and car companies are waking up to the reality that consumers want to swap out the tailpipe for a zero emission vehicle that is clean and also getting cheaper. A report published earlier this year found that, in Europe, an electric car is already cheaper to own and operate than a comparable gasoline- or diesel-powered car.

Other forms of electrified transportation haven’t advanced as far but are proving themselves capable of mainstream deployment with every passing month. Electric ferries are already operating in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and transit agencies are showing their satisfaction by ordering more electric boats to replace aging diesel fleets. Electric buses are cheaper—when factoring purchase cost, fuel, and maintenance—than traditional buses in some European cities already, and should be on par with standard diesel buses throughout Europe within the next few years. Heavy e-trucks are projected to be as much as 30% cheaper to own and operate than the most efficient diesel trucks by the end of next decade.

Farther down the road, larger cargo ships could utilise hydrogen fuel cells to decarbonise and reduce emissions. The first hybrid-electric airplanes are currently being designed and developed, and will be tested in coming years. Air travel companies are publicly aiming for zero emissions short haul flights by 2030.

Despite this clear potential for clean transportation, electro-mobility still does not seem to be the motor driving Europe’s economic, climate, and industrial policy. Consider this one example: all seven of the scenarios developed by the European Commission in its long term strategy project the majority of trucks and commercial vehicles to run on fossil fuels or biofuels by midcentury. This sends precisely the wrong signal to commercial operators, shipping companies, and manufacturers, who could otherwise be encouraged to make the necessary investments to build, deliver, and operate electric trucks. The scenarios guiding flight, shipping, and mass transit are similarly anchored to fossil fuels.

This is not just bad environmental policy and it’s not just bad public health policy. It’s also bad economic policy. Deep decarbonisation of the transport sector would yield a net increase in employment in the construction, electricity, services, and most manufacturing sectors. It could generate more than 200,000 net additional jobs by 2030 and at least 1,000,000 jobs by 2050.

To unlock this potential, companies and investors need clear and strong signals from policymakers. This is why we at the Platform for Electro-Mobility are calling on EU transport and energy ministers to use this Council meeting to set a stable long-term regulatory framework that recognises the dominant role of electric transportation. As the transportation sector is set to become Europe’s largest source (29%) of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, any pathway to net zero emissions by 2050 must tackle fossil fuel use in mobility, rapidly weaning cars and trucks and boats and planes off of petroleum-based fuels and plugging them into an increasingly low carbon electric grid.

The roadmap that ministers draw can steer us further from the goals of the Paris Agreement, or could guide Europe along the path of electro-mobility, giving the transport sector the clear long-term guidance it needs to thrive in a zero emission economy, guaranteeing our citizens a better, healthier, and more prosperous future.

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