Consumer policy can help clean up transport in Europe

As I started to write this article, the COP26 climate conference was just beginning. Twitter was abuzz with people tweeting about terms such as “just transition” and “net zero”.

My mind drifted to the question: How do such macro climate talks play out beyond the negotiation room and grand press statements? I will argue here that consumer policy plays a major role as it turns climate ambition into reality. Across our daily life, the sustainable choice should be the affordable, convenient, and trustworthy choice.


Breaking out of fossil-fuelled mobility

Our choices as consumers can lower CO2 emissions and help us reach the Paris Agreement. BEUC, a network of 46 consumer organisations from 32 European countries, sees however that people are locked into a mobility system that is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. This is bad for the planet, our health, and our wallets.

In theory there are alternatives: We could use public transport, take the train, switch to an electric vehicle, or go by bike. In many cases, however, these alternatives are either unavailable, unaffordable, or inconvenient.

Let me illustrate how consumer policy can help.


Consumer policy solutions to benefit drivers

Many depend on a car. As CO2 emissions from cars must go down, the likely scenario is that we’ll drive electric sooner or later. BEUC research shows electric cars are already an affordable option for many people today, and will be for everyone by 2025. Second-hand buyers in particular stand to save money. The EU can help people make these savings by strictly regulating CO2 emissions, which encourages carmakers to bring more, and more affordable, electric cars to market.

CO2 emissions regulation is only one part. Our members have noticed it can be difficult for drivers to know what a charge might cost: Germany’s Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband has already warned three operators about using non-transparent pricing. We therefore advise the EU to set charging prices in kilowatt-hour, mirroring the price per litre logic drivers are accustomed to.

Payment isn’t always straightforward either, as people are required to have an array of apps or cards to use charging point networks. Why can’t I simply pay using a debit card or an app equivalent? The good news is that the EU can easily tackle these problems by addressing it in the ongoing reform of its so-called ‘alternative fuels’ law.


Easier ticketing and better passenger rights

Not everyone has a car, wants a car, or can afford one. Rail seems an obvious alternative – but falls short in consumer convenience and protection.

If I wish to travel hassle-free by train across Europe, I should have an easy overview of journey options, schedules, prices, and conditions. But If I am to travel from the Netherlands to Italy, I am in reality probably going to need to book separate tickets using different apps and websites to find the best offer.

The problem lies in the lack of common booking and ticketing systems, and rail providers do not necessarily share data about travel options between themselves. That’s why we urge EU policy makers to require rail operators to make their ticketing available to third parties.

Consumers can then more easily compare prices and book a trip with multiple companies, or even combine different means of transport – such as train and coach (so-called ‘multimodal’ travel).

Buying a ticket is one step. Another difficulty is when something goes wrong during a trip. Despite a recent update of rail passenger rights legislation, protection on a cross-border, multi-leg journey with different rail operators still falls short. I won’t delve into technicalities but the issue is people are not protected throughout their whole journey, unless train companies are 100% owned by the same parent company.

People on multimodal trips similarly lack continuous protection throughout their journey, but because no EU rights legislation exists at all! So which operator to contact in case of travel disruption? Who is in charge of rerouting or compensation in case of a missed connection? Such questions are likely to make people perceive rail, a sustainable way of travel, as less reliable.


Trusting that what gets billed as ‘green’ is really green

Whatever decision we make as a consumer, we should be able to trust that ‘green’ choices presented to us are, in fact, environmentally sound. I find myself surrounded by suggestions I can be carbon neutral by paying a bit more or making use of technologies that are still based on fossil fuels. Think about commercials for hybrid cars, ‘offsetting’ a plane trip or – if you allow me to go beyond mobility – a banana labelled as ‘CO2 neutral’.

BEUC is urging EU decision-makers to only allow such claims if they are backed up by scientific evidence. ‘Green’ claims must be verified and pre-approved by authorities.

Once this article is published, COP26 will be long over: The question is whether governments will turn buzzwords into regulatory action that improves our daily lives. Luckily, the EU is making good progress through its Green Deal. Consumer organisations will encourage decision-makers to stay on track – no mobility pun intended.

Thanks to my colleagues Steven Berger, Robin Loos, and Laurens Rutten for contributing to this article.