Progress too slow

High-time to put fossil-fuelled cars  on the shelf. Photo: Joe Szilvagyi CC BY-NC-SA

Emission levels of carbon dioxide from the transport sector have levelled off, after the sharp reductions that followed the economic crisis in 2008. However there is still a notable absence of structural changes, such as modal shifts.

Energy use in the transport sector fell from a record high level by almost 5 per cent between 2007 and 2009, and over the following two years energy usage has remained at a relatively constant level (figure), increasing according to preliminary data by 0.1 per cent between 2010 and 2011, writes the European Environment Agency in its annual report on transport and the environment1, which was published just before Christmas.

Figure: Transport energy consumption in all EEA member countries except Iceland and Liechtenstein.

The large fall in energy use occurred primarily in domestic shipping, aviation and rail.  While the decrease for road transport, which accounts for 72 per cent of all transport energy, was much less.
Greenhouse gas emissions from transport, which in 2010 accounted for 24 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions within the EU, have followed a very similar trend to that of energy use, i.e. a sharp decrease between 2007 and 2009, after which emissions stayed more or less level. This decline can mainly be attributed to lower volumes of freight transport, which in turn is a result of the economic recession and high fuel prices. This development means that the EU right now is on track for its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 60 per cent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. However, as the EEA points out in its report, it is difficult to predict if this trend will last if and when the economy picks up.

To get a better understanding of how fluctuations in the economy affect transport, the report’s authors also examined in more detail how the volume of passenger transport and freight transport have changed in comparison to GDP. Freight was found to be very sensitive to economic development. In 2008 freight transport volumes fell much more than GDP, and while the economy has slowly recovered, a much stronger rebound has been observed in the freight sector.

Passenger transport was found to be much more resilient to fluctuations in the economy. Between 2007 and 2009 passenger traffic continued to rise, despite the economic downturn. It is only when the economy recovered somewhat, between 2009 and 2010 that passenger traffic decreased slightly. The volume of passenger traffic fell by one per cent between 2009 and 2010, in fact the first decline in many years. There has been growth in passenger transport volume every year since 1995. The explanation is thought to be less commuting, due to high fuel prices and more unemployment.

Modal shifts from fossil-fuelled road traffic and aviation to less polluting alternatives are crucial for a sustainable transport system. Unfortunately, we cannot see any positive development in this area. In Western Europe (EU-15) road traffic has continuously accounted for approximately 85 per cent of all passenger kilometres since 1995. The remaining percentage is divided roughly equally between bus and rail. In the new member states (EU-12), where bus and rail had significantly higher shares in the mid-1990s, the modal shares have steadily approached the situation in the rest of the European Union, and in 2010 the differences were only marginal. For freight the development is very similar.  In the past decades road freight has dominated in the EU-15 and there is no hint of the situation changing. In the EU-12 more than half of freight went by rail in 1995, and today that share has shrunk to roughly a quarter.

In the White paper on Transport from 2011 the European Commission has set a target to reduce the sector’s dependence on oil by 70 per cent by 2050 compared to 2009. A similar target is stated in the Directive for Renewable Energy, where the share of renewables in the energy mix should increase to 10 per cent by 2020.  Despite a reduction in oil use and an increase in the proportion of renewable energy between 2009 and 2010, the changes are too small to be on track to meet the final targets. The situation for renewable fuels differs considerably in different member states. Slovakia and Sweden had the highest share of renewable energy in the transport sector in 2010, nearly 8 per cent, while the share of renewable energy in Denmark, Estonia and Malta did not even account for half a per cent.

The weak development of renewable fuels is also confirmed in the sale of vehicles designed for fuels other than petrol and diesel. The share of alternatively fuelled cars only accounted for four per cent of the entire fleet in 2011. And out of this share vehicles that run on liquid petroleum gas (also a fossil fuel) was the most common type. Sales of these, particularly in France and Italy, have fallen sharply since 2009 because of changing economic incentives. Electric vehicles represent only 0.03 per cent of the entire fleet.

The prospect of curbing traditional air pollutants is slightly brighter than other areas covered by the report. The two ozone precursors – non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC) and carbon monoxide (CO) – have over a twenty-year period decreased to less than a quarter of previous emissions and so have sulphur (SO2) emissions from other sources than international shipping. The trend in the short term, between 2009 and 2010, has also been declining. But this area also has some dark clouds; emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) have not fallen to the same extent and are today still about three-quarters of the 1990 emission levels. An increase in freight volumes between 2009 and 2010 has even resulted in a short-term increase in NOx emissions. The total reduction in SO2 emissions is even smaller than for NOx and PM2.5, since the increase in emissions from international shipping has more or less offset all the reductions that have occurred on land.

In the report it is noted that several of the targets that were set in the White Paper on transport have so far not been possible to follow up, due to a lack of data or methodology to obtain and analyse data.  This includes the target to reduce the use of conventionally fuelled cars in urban traffic by 50 per cent by 2030 and the target that the majority of medium distance (>30 km) passenger traffic should go by rail by 2050.

Kajsa Lindqvist

1The contribution of transport to air quality, TERM 2012: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, (November 2012) European Enviroment Agency. 

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