Uncertain future for further emission reductions

One third of the population in cities are exposed to air pollution levels exceeding the EU air quality standards. Photo: Flickr.com/kohlmann.sascha/CC BY-NC-SA

Difficulties with shifting to renewables and rising emissions from aviation are two hurdles that the EU needs to overcome in order to achieve its climate targets in the transport sector.

In late 2013 the European Environment Agency released its annual report on indicators showing how well the European transport sector is progressing towards various sustainability targets.

Overall greenhouse gases (GHG) from the transport sector decreased by 0.6 per cent in 2011, despite emissions from aviation rising by 2.6 per cent. This means that the European Union is still on trajectory towards its target of reducing overall transport-related GHG emissions by 20 per cent from 2008 levels by 2030 and by at least 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.

The report warns, however, that it may become difficult to stay on the given path if economic growth recovers in Europe. There is still a strong correlation between GDP and transport, and in the new member states demand for transport is even outstripping economic growth. Car use in Western

Europe is the only example in the transport sector of a real decoupling from economic development. The number of passenger kilometres travelled by car increased by only five per cent in the EU-15 between 2000 and 2011, and between 2009 and 2011 it even declined by 1.4 per cent, while preliminary data suggest that the reduction continued in 2012.

But the car’s position as the most popular mean for travel is far from threatened. It had a modal share of more than 80 per cent of passenger kilometres travelled on the ground, which can be compared to rail and bus travel with around 10 per cent each.

In the EU’s 13 new member states there was a very different situation at the beginning of the 1990s. Train and bus travel then constituted together almost 40 per cent of the journeys made, but since then there has been a steady trend towards a modal split that resembles the EU-15. Currently the share for rail travel is even lower than in the EU-15.

Passenger transport demand reached an all-time high in 2011, mainly due to a 10 per cent increase for aviation. This is a trend that has continued over the last decade and was only to some extent halted by the economic crisis. Between 1995 and 2011 the demand for air travel increased by 66 per cent. Over the same period demand for car travel increased by 23 per cent.

Replacing oil in the transport sector with non-fossil alternatives seems to be difficult for member states. Oil consumption decreased by 0.6 per cent in 2011, but more is needed to reach the target of a 70 per cent reduction from 2008 levels by 2050.

Similarly, the increase in the share of renewable energy in the sector is not adequate. In 2011 it increased to 3.8 per cent from 3.5 per cent, but unless progress is accelerated there is a big risk of missing the target of 10 per cent by 2020. Since the renewable target was adopted, it has been further tightened. Now, only half of the 10 per cent target may be reached through biofuels and these must also satisfy the new sustainability criteria. This mainly has consequences for Finland, France, Czech Republic, Portugal and Slovakia, which have a relatively high share of biofuels, but a small proportion of which meet the criteria. Closest to reaching the target is Sweden, with a share of renewable energy of close to nine per cent.

The share of electrified cars certainly increased in 2012, but from extremely low levels, to a mere 0.04 per cent of the fleet. Among new cars registered, 0.1 per cent were electric. The highest numbers were in France, with 5700 new electric vehicles registered in 2012, followed by Germany, with 2800. Although the renewable energy sources that power electric cars are counted 2.5 times, this will be of minor importance for achieving the renewable target by 2020.

A brighter story is the development of electric bicycles. Much more affordable and with a typical range of 80 kilometres, recharging overnight is sufficient to keep them rolling.

Western Europe is the second biggest market for electric bicycles after China and is expected to have an annual growth rate of over nine per cent up to 2020.

This year’s report takes a closer look at urban traffic and its environmental impact. It is noted that one third of the population in cities are exposed to air pollution levels exceeding the EU air quality standards and that urban transport contributes to 25 per cent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

For passenger transport there is a good potential for modal shifts, e.g. travellers who park their cars in favour of cycling, walking or using public transport. Amsterdam is one example that for a long time has had a very high proportion of cyclists and pedestrians. But more interesting is perhaps those cities that managed to achieve great enhancements from very low levels, such as Seville. By building 80 kilometres of new bike paths, the city has managed to increase the modal share of cycling from 0.5 to 7 per cent between 2006 and 2013.

But a large part of urban traffic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions comes from freight transport. It has been estimated that urban freight comprises 10–18 per cent of the traffic but contributes to some 40 per cent of the pollution.

There are examples of cities that are also working to encourage modal shifts in this segment. Like Utrecht, which has introduced an electric boat delivering beer to restaurants along the canals. But it is still reasonable to assume that motorised road vehicles will continue to provide most of the urban freight in the future.

Much could be gained by more efficient logistics. However such development is counteracted by two ongoing trends generated by modern information technology. Companies can now easily place more frequent smaller orders. The cost saved on less storage space outweighs the increased expenditure on transport. This has led to the development of more deliveries with smaller vehicles in many urban centres. The second trend is e-commerce. Although the phenomenon replaces many shopping trips, it also generates traffic when the goods are to be delivered to the customer. Systems where the item must be received by a customer who is not always home can be particularly ineffective. The frequency of missed deliveries is estimated to be up to 30 per cent. Many cities, to escape this problem, have instead introduced local collection and delivery points at railway and bus stations and post offices.

The introduction of Low Emission Zones (LEZ) has been proven effective to promote cleaner vehicles in city centres around Europe. Zones that cover all types of motor vehicles have shown the best results. Improvements concern in particular lower levels of PM2.5. Larger particles are not formed to the same extent by combustion, but more from brake and road wear. The substances that form ozone often have a more regional origin and in addition it has been found that emissions of NOx in real city driving do not correspond to the emissions measured during the test cycles required for the various Euro standards.

Congestion charging has also proven effective to reduce air pollution. When it was introduced in Stockholm, traffic went down by 22 per cent and emissions went down by 12–14 per cent. Increasing parking fees is another, usually less controversial, way to reduce traffic in city centres, partly because some visitors choose other means of transport. But also because the cars that actually do go into the city do not need to spend as long a time (with their engines running) to find parking.

The report also highlights the need for cities and metropolitan areas to work with Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans that deal with a mix of strategies, like pricing schemes, mobility management, city planning, public transport, charging systems for electric vehicles, etc., to reduce emissions and improve life for city dwellers.

Kajsa Lindqvist

EEA Report No 11/2013, A closer look at urban transport – TERM 2013: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe 

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