The ever changing European Transport system

By Barbara Thaler, MEP (EPP Group – Austria), Member of the TRAN Committee

The European Union set itself unprecedented goals in in order to become climate neutral by 2050. I stand behind those goals, but I came to the conclusion, that decarbonisation alone will not do the trick. A sustainable transformation of our economy, which is a sustainable success in the long run, will only be possible if it provides concrete benefits for citizens, for the economy and for the environment. If we do not succeed to address all of these three key variables, support for the measures will fade inevitably.

Having said that, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic already provided us with a valuable lesson.

Decarbonisation through simply cutting transport activities does not work, it just creates plenty of additional problems. So safeguarding not only a healthy environment but also passing on a prosperous future for our children and grandchildren needs a more refined approach.

However, its easier said than done. Transforming our entire economy in order to become the world’s first prosperous and carbon neutral society was never an easy task to begin with. And the sheer size of “Fit for 55” package shows the magnitude of the task ahead.

The most promising way forward from my point of view is to acknowledge, that free, deliberate, choices of individuals must not be seen as problems that need solving. Instead, politics job has to be to address, to mitigate and even to solve the problems individual actions inevitably cause for society. To put it in a nutshell: We must not treat transport as problem, we need to solve the problems created through transport.

440 Million Europeans make deliberate, informed choices for themselves every day. No administration in the world is able to foresee and address all those unique and highly individual circumstances as well and as efficiently as the individuals for themselves. Therefore, the EU needs to put its efforts into improving the efficiency and sustainability of every transport mode, mainly through stimulating technological progress.

Consequently, regardless which choice individuals keep making, the negative impact on society will be smaller and smaller, from year to year, from decade to decade. Having in mind how fundamentally road borne air pollutants have been reduced during the last two decades, we are well advised to stick with the very same approach, to follow the same logic.

Our strength is, that in a free market economy one’s person gain is not another person’s loss and vice versa. The very foundation of the European Union rest on the logic of win-win solutions between its Member States. Market-based approaches provide such solutions at the lowest cost possible, from individuals up to whole nations.

Just swapping the reliance on petrol with a reliance on batteries will not do much good in this regard. Therefore, we need to shift our attention towards biofuels and synthetic fuels, since they do not only decrease our dependencies but also tick all of the three boxes. Environmental, economic and individual benefits. Also when we want to keep an eye on the entire transport value chain. Just one example to illustrate how interlinked everything is. With the proposed further tightening of the Emission Trading System, the metal industry is forced to replace coal directly with electricity or with hydrogen. This will drive down CO2 but green steel is considerably more expensive than conventional steel, so export is not an option and in Europe the problem is, that one of the biggest markets, the automotive industry, has no incentive to use green steel. This will not change as long as CO2 for cars and trucks will be measured only at the tailpipe. This measurement becomes even more a problem since the European Commission also proposed to introduce an ETS for road and buildings. But at the same time the tail pipe measurement is eliminating the market for biofuels and efuels, So fuel suppliers have no incentive to make big investments in order to substitute fossil fuels with biofuels and Efuels.

On another note, and almost needless to say, making transport more sustainable needs a more prominent role of rail. Rail has almost zero emissions but sadly also almost zero competition within the sector. This need to be addressed rather urgently in light of our climate targets, since the sector would be able to support our policy goals to quite an extend.

So getting more market into rail is key. A competitive environment needs to be in place in 2030 at the latest. Once a modern, high-performance rail infrastructure from Scandinavia to Sicily is available, freight trains have the infrastructure to easily outcompete long haul road transport.

However, it will take enormous efforts from all actors, the will to encourage competition of modes and technologies and to foster technology neutral innovation to name just a few.

In order to not get lost in the details, we should always have in mind, that transforming our society towards a carbon neutral one is a massive endeavour. It needs to build on the uniquely successful principles which once helped transforming Europe from a war and poverty ridden continent to the most prosperous and human regions in the world. Policies centred on the individual and its intrinsic needs. This way will ensure, that we will achieve the climate targets and keep everyone on board.