Photo: / Nicola Sznajder CC BY-NC

Possible to phase out the climate impact of road traffic in 15 years

Taxes, regulations, fuel switches, electrification and climate-conscious social planning is the recipe if the Nordic and Baltic states is going to abolish GHG emissions from road traffic.

Environmental groups and developing countries often argue that wealthy countries have the biggest responsibility for switching to fossil-free economies if we are to stay within the 1.5°C target. The industrialised countries caused the problem and they have the resources needed to achieve a transition.

According to this reasoning, wealthy countries should phase out their climate impact in the next two decades. Poorer countries should be given longer, and they need the help of technological development in the wealthier countries.

IVL Swedish Environmental Institute has analysed what it would take to phase out climate impact from road traffic in the Nordic and Baltic countries by 2030–2035. It will be very difficult to reduce emissions this quickly, but it can be done with the right mix of measures.

At present, reduction obligations are an effective tool for an individual country. The reduction obligation is a law that forces fuel suppliers to gradually reduce the climate impact of fuels. This is done by replacing fossil fuels with fuels with lower climate impact, usually biofuels.

Many vehicles will still use internal combustion engines for a long time. A gradually increasing reduction obligation, if properly designed, will ensure that the fuels they use will have low climate impact by the date set in each country.

Sweden is introducing a reduction obligation this year. The climate impact of diesel and petrol sold by fuel suppliers in 2020 must be about 10 percent lower than that of fuels made entirely from fossil resources.

As more countries introduce a reduction obligation, fuel suppliers will have to invest more in developing new fuels. However, there is a shortage of sustainably produced raw materials. This means there is a risk that a high level of biofuel use in some countries will compete with use in other countries.

Electrofuels are one alternative to biofuels. These fuels are produced from carbon dioxide using renewable electricity. The technology is new and more expensive, but has potential in the long term. However, it is unlikely that electrofuels could play a major role within the next decade.

The countries therefore need to incentivise electric propulsion, not least to minimise demand for liquid fuels. An effective model for individual countries is to set differentiated vehicle taxes, so that fuel-efficient and electric vehicles cost less, while inefficient, fossil-fuel-driven alternatives cost more.

Electric vehicles are becoming more popular and their cost is falling. But electric cars still make up less than 5 percent of new sales in most European countries. And even if sales grow to the point where electric cars make up around half of all new cars within 10–15 years, it still means that only about 20 percent of the total mileage driven would be electric. Heavy vehicles also take longer to switch to electric drive. Growth in renewable electricity generation will naturally also be needed over the same period.

Even if new fuels and electricity can be promoted on a large scale, it is unlikely that emissions could be phased out within 15–20 years solely through fuel switches and electric vehicles. Few commentators believe this could be achieved internationally in such a short time.

The countries therefore also need to change taxation and travel allowances to slow the growth in commuting by car. Local authorities need to improve public transport and introduce transport plans for freight traffic. Cities need to apply environmentally-friendly parking fees. Creating zero-emission zones for vehicles could lead to cleaner, quieter city centres while accelerating the switch to electricity. Building regulations could reduce the focus on car parking and encourage more sustainable travel.

Individual countries do not have all the necessary tools, however. EU-wide rules are needed to assist the transition. The EU needs to stiffen requirements for lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions from new vehicles, to reduce demand for liquid fuels and increase electrification. The EU can also impose requirements on manufacturers that zero-emission vehicles make up a certain percentage of their sales, and gradually increase this percentage. Such rules already exist in California and China. The EU also needs to support development of electric highways and fuel cell propulsion, introduce eco-friendly mileage taxes for light and heavy vehicles, and extend sustainability requirements for fuels.

IVL’s report describes technologies and trends in the transport sector and presents some similarities and differences between the transport systems in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

Mats-Ola Larsson

The report can be downloaded here:


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