Low-carbon European economy will require system overhaul

BRUSSELS -- The European Union acknowledged yesterday that its transport policy is not keeping up with the fight against global warming and that it will have to be reconfigured to make the transition toward a low-carbon economy a reality.

But the European Union did not say how it intends to reach that goal. Noting that European transport still relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels, Antonio Tajani, E.U. commissioner in charge of transport policy, said that greenhouse gas emissions pose a "major challenge" for the European transport sector.

Tajani spoke at the presentation of a strategic document adopted yesterday by the European Commission on the future of transport until 2020. The document follows up a revised 2001 white paper that had set the agenda for E.U. transport policy through 2010. Yesterday's report contained few ideas to make transport greener.

However, the report proposes several broad objectives, such as improving integration of various means of transport and using a better pricing system to send the right price signals. The arrangement would give proper incentives to users, planners and investors to use technology to accelerate transition to a low-carbon society.

"The transport system would particularly benefit from better price signals," the report's authors argue. "It is rare to have price differentiation for the use of the road in peak versus off-peak hours. Similarly, there is no economic incentive to use more silent vehicles, safer modes of transport or more environmentally friendly means."

Funds needed for an overhaul may be hard to find

The authors add that the most immediate priorities appear to be improving integration of various modes of transport, as a means to make the system more efficient overall and to accelerate development and deployment of innovative technologies.

Greenpeace said it regrets that the report "largely ignores" issues such as reducing demand and controlling speed. "Official EU data show that damage to the climate from cars, airplanes and ships is increasing, but the Commission fails to recognize the need to set transport emission targets," said Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace E.U. transport policy adviser, in a statement.


However, the authors of the E.U report say moving toward a low-carbon economy will require a substantial overhaul of the transport system. This calls for considerable funding, but funds, they warn, will be hard to find.

The current economic crisis has put public finances under pressure and will likely be followed by a phase of budgetary consolidation. Plus, the aging European population will absorb increasing amounts of public funds for pensions and health care.

The report takes stock of European transport, noting that progress has been made in providing better mobility and reducing road accidents, although the 2001 white paper objective -- halving road transport casualties by 2010 -- will likely fall short. Also, adds the report, market openness has generally led to greater efficiency and lower costs, most notably in air transport.

Transport tops other sectors in emissions growth

The situation is much less rosy when it comes to the transport sector's impact on climate change. According to the report, compared to 1990 levels, transport has topped all other E.U. sectors in its growth rate for greenhouse gas emissions. "The environment remains the main [transport] policy area where further improvements are necessary," it states.

According to the European Environment Agency, transport accounted for nearly 24 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions and close to 28 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 in the 27 E.U. countries. With a share of 71 percent in 2006, road traffic is by far the main emitter of heat-trapping gases from transport.

European transport did not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions intensity significantly by switching to cleaner energy sources; it still depends up to 97 percent on fossil fuels, explains the commission in its report.

"We know the technology exists to tackle impacts of the transport sector on Europe's environment," said Jacqueline McGlade, the European Environment Agency's executive director, in a recent statement.

"However," she added, "many vehicles rolling off production lines are anything but green. The freight sector still favours the least efficient transport modes. And railways across the EU still do not have a unified system."

McGlade emphasized the need to decouple transport growth from economic growth. According to the commission's report, such a decoupling, an objective of the European Union's white paper of 2001 and Sustainable Development Strategy in 2006, is only partial. It has taken place on the passenger side.

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