What fuels our drive towards clean transport? A strategic vision for a greener Europe


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Jane Burston
Jane Burston

Executive Director of the Clean Air Fund and 2015-2016 European Young Leader (EYL40)

When it comes to creating supranational support for a clean and sustainable transportation network, Europe lacks a strategic vision. There are a number of initiatives that still need to be implemented to ensure citizens have access to safe, affordable and reliable modes of transportation, while simultaneously tackling air pollution and mitigating the worst effects of climate change. However, our current transportation environment is plagued by three main challenges to the adoption of public, active and zero-emission transportation in Europe: firstly, the variety of options, secondly cost, and thirdly, the choices that people make – which are often based on both of the above.

First, a large driver of adoption is improving the validity and viability of available zero-emission transport options. Cycling isn’t very appealing if lanes are shared with busses and heavy vehicles, which is unfortunately the case in many countries. City planners need to ensure that the right to choose safe modes of transport is reflected in the transportation network and safety standards of city charters and development infrastructure. Similarly, public transport must be regular, reliable and affordable. City governments are especially responsible for providing an infrastructure that help citizens make sustainable transport choices.

Second, a barrier to choosing the more sustainable option is often cost – in no place more so than with private car ownership, low and zero-emission cars remain prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to a large portion of the population. While incentives such as scrappage schemes or loans exist in some parts of Europe, EU regulations do not provide a possibility to exempt zero-emission vehicles from VAT and most of the existing member state subsidies only apply to new vehicles. The market for electric vehicles (EVs) is precariously leveraged on dwindling inputs such as lithium. As the demand for EVs rises in tandem to match our appetite for low-emission transport, we will face a supply bottleneck down the line, making EVs even more expensive. Public transport can also be more expensive than using your own car, or – if the distance is long – flying. If we don’t act now to ensure costs are kept low then we may face market inequalities in terms of those who can afford sustainable transport and who can’t.

Europe must, as a rule, increase the ambit of its strategic vision to include these three challenges

What both of these factors contribute to, is the third main challenge – the choices people are then forced to make. If we want people to start adopting sustainable transport whilst progress is being made on options and cost, rather than only when it is made, then we’ll need to simultaneously persuasively make the case for why sustainable transport modes are better. This includes talking about the benefits for mitigating climate change – but also other benefits that might feel more relatable to people, like their health and the health of their families. Promoting active travel as an antidote to rising obesity, and as an efficient way of improving health and fitness in a busy world, might be greater motivators than tackling what can, by some, be perceived as something far off that will mostly affect other people. Many parents are also concerned about the air quality impact that fossil fuel transportation has on their children, and have changed behaviours as a result.

Europe must, as a rule, increase the ambit of its strategic vision to include these three challenges.

So, what can local authorities and policymakers do to address these obstacles? Already we are seeing an uptick in decisive action across the board when it comes to addressing the shortfalls in our transportation networks. Chief among those actions available to policymakers and local authorities is the introduction of clean air zones and low emission zones, as seen in the United Kingdom. These apply a charge for high-polluting vehicles and set the rules for which vehicles will be restricted in the future. Widespread implementation of such zones will signal to potential buyers the future costs of driving cars in city centres. It’s essential that these zones are designed carefully to ensure maximum effectiveness. For example, there is evidence that the bigger the zone, the more likely people are to choose alternative forms of transport rather than driving around it. Zones also need to be designed with equity in mind, so that costs aren’t incurred by those less able to pay, and to ensure that those most affected by air pollution see the greatest benefits.

The EU needs to review and improve the taxonomy for what constitutes low emission fuel

Many other solutions to the obstacles outlined here can be implemented at the EU, national and local levels. Most importantly, the EU needs to review and improve the taxonomy for what constitutes low emission fuels. This would involve removing fossil fuels – once and for all – from the list of alternative or low emission fuels, in particular natural gases in compressed or liquefied form, as well as liquefied petroleum gas. Such initiatives are already gaining speed and attention at EU and national level under new regulatory proposals, such as the Proposal for the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR).

At the local level, it’s important that cities and local authorities gain increased access to funding for smart city concepts and urban planning, which underscore equity for its citizens, including the implementation of low emission zones and provision of VAT exemption on zero-emission vehicles in order to accelerate consumer uptake. Clean air and low emission zones need to be coupled with investment in safe, affordable and reliable alternatives.

This article is part of our European Climate Pact series. The European Climate Pact is a movement of people united around a common cause, each taking steps to build a more sustainable Europe for us all. Launched by the European Commission, the Climate Pact is part of the European Green Deal and is helping the EU to meet its goal to be the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.

Learn more about the European Climate Pact here.

Read our full European Climate Pact article series:

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