Focusing on environmental pressures from long‑distance transport

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

The European Environment Agency's (EEA's) annual Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM) report presents an overview of transport demand and pressures from the sector on the environment, as well as selected related impacts and policy responses. The report makes use of the latest available data in order to assess key trends and overall progress in meeting policy targets.

The 2014 TERM report includes two sections:

  • Part A provides an assessment of the progress made in the environmental performance of the transport system as a whole. This section uses a core set of 12 TERM indicators; these indicators have been selected based on their links to key transitional processes in transport, their association with ongoing European policy targets, and data availability and reliability.
  • Part B of the report presents a dedicated assessment of the impact of long‑distance transport activities on the environment. This complements last year's TERM report (EEA, 2013a), in which the importance of health and environmental impacts of urban transport were assessed.

Policy context
Specific short and long‑term targets have been designed by European policymakers to reduce the impacts of the transport sector on health and the environment, and to encourage a move towards greater sustainability in the sector consistent with the objectives of the European Union's (EU) Seventh Environment Action Programme (7EAP).

The Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area: Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system (EC, 2011a) (referred to as the 2011 Transport White Paper) sets out a strategy for a longer term transition towards a low-carbon transport system. It envisions a 60 % cut in transport emissions by 2050, as compared to 1990. A substantial modal shift from road to rail and waterborne transport, of at least 50 % for medium-distance freight journeys, is necessary to achieve that goal, providing that the modes receiving demand operate under efficient circumstances. In addition, it is foreseen that the majority of medium-distance intercity passenger journeys should take place by rail by 2050. The 2011 Transport White Paper contains a number of non-binding targets associated with the longer term development of the sector, which it is expected will form the basis for regulatory developments and monitoring over the next decade.

Complementing such longer-term objectives, existing legislation has established a number of targets and requirements that must be met in the shorter term. This includes, for example, various regulations and directives addressing vehicle emission standards, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from passenger cars and vans and the share of renewable energy in transport.

Part A: monitoring progress towards transport and environmental goals
An assessment of progress based upon the TERM indicators shows that the environmental performance of transport is improving. Various factors will have contributed to the improvements seen in recent years, including the on-going effects of legislation, changes in consumer behaviour and preferences, and the impacts of the economic recession. Future in-depth analyses are needed to explain the relative importance of the different explanatory factors in terms of the trends observed in key indicators. An overview of key trends and overall progress in meeting key environmental objectives associated with the transport sector is provided in Chapter 2 of this report. In general, progress is consistent with the respective target paths, except for the share of renewable energy in the transport sector. Progress in key areas is summarised below.

  • Transport demand is an important issue addressed in each annual TERM report, as growing transport demand can negate many of the benefits of technology development designed to reduce the health and environmental impacts associated with transport. Over recent years transport demand growth has slowed down, and even decreased, for some modes. After a small increase (0.7 %) between 2010 and 2011 fuelled mainly by air transport, passenger transport demand decreased in 2012 (– 1.5 %), mainly due to the drop in car passenger travel. Following the trends in the road and maritime modes, EU‑28 freight transport volumes also fell in 2012, by 2.1 %. As the gross domestic product (GDP) decreased by 0.4 % in 2012, this would suggest that for both passenger and freight transport, the intensity of transport in the economy is decreasing, and that some steady decoupling is taking place. Energy efficiency improvements, and to a lesser extent, increased use of less carbon-intensive fuels, have led to the better results. There are also signs of some changes in the travel behaviour and demand patterns for some social and economic areas. Whether this overall improvement is only temporary or will continue, even in periods of economic growth, remains a topic for further research and discussion.
  • Transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions decreased again in 2012, coupled with a shrinking road transport demand. Nevertheless, GHG emissions remain 20.5 % above 1990 levels and would need to fall by 67 % by 2050 relative to 2012 in order to meet the 2011 Transport White Paper target. Maritime emissions fell sharply in 2012, but remain very much higher than the 2050 target (emissions will need to fall by 31.4 % by 2050 in order to meet the reduction target). The rate of reduction in oil consumption has increased slightly in the last two years, reaching − 4.3 % in 2012. It is now compliant with the linear target line to the 2050 goal of a 70 % reduction compared to 2008.
  • For CO2 emissions of new passenger cars, regulations are proving effective, with the 2015 target of 130 g/km already being achieved in 2013. Manufacturers similarly appear well placed to meet the 2020 to 2021 target of 95 g/km that was established by new legislation approved in February 2014. However, concerns remain regarding how to translate this laboratory‑based monitoring into more significant on-road emission reductions. By 2015, the European Commission (EC) is expected to report on the possibility of setting a realistic and achievable target for 2025; it is also planning to implement a new test-cycle, the World Harmonised Light Duty Test Procedure (WLTP), by 2017. As for cars, the new vans fleet has already met its respective 175 g CO2/km target for 2017, four years early. This success notwithstanding, significant progress will have to be made in order to achieve the target of 147 g CO2/km by 2020.
  • After the slight decrease in air pollutant emissions in 2011 (due mainly to an increase in international aviation emissions, which offset decreases in other modes), a clearer downward path was regained in 2012, influenced by reduced demand in transport activity and the progressive expansion of stricter Euro emission standards within road vehicle fleets. Aviation is the only subsector where air pollutant emissions (ammonia (NH3) and sulphur oxides (SOX)) increased in the last year of available data. Decreases were more significant in those pollutants that have traditionally been more difficult to reduce, such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (NOX). Air quality levels in cities still pose a fundamental challenge for public health, particularly for the nitrogen dioxide (NO2) annual limit value. The ever-increasing share of diesel vehicles in European cities remains the main cause of high NO2 and particulate concentration in urban areas. Discriminatory fuel tax policies favouring diesel over gasoline in most European countries are at the root of the technological and market developments behind this trend.
  • The average EU-28 share of renewable energy used in transport increased between 2011 and 2012, from 3.4 % to 5.1 %, including only those biofuels which fully meet the sustainability criteria. The use of electricity in road transport is still very low compared to the amount of biofuels consumed in transport: only 67 kilotonnes per oil equivalent (ktoe) in 2012 compared to 14 610 ktoe for biofuels in 2012; the positive aspect is that about 20 % of this corresponds to renewable electricity. Renewable electricity in other modes of transport remained more or less stable, showing only a marginal decrease.

The number of alternative fuel car registrations in 2013 increased slightly, compared to the previous year. Taken together, battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles account for 0.5 % of the total new registrations in the EU‑27. Many EU Member States already offer financial incentives such as tax reductions and exemptions for electrically chargeable vehicles, although these incentives are in some cases offset by scrappage schemes also offering benefits to conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.

Part B: environmental pressures from long‑distance transport
Long‑distance transport is responsible for a relatively small proportion of the total number of journeys by shippers and passengers in Europe, but nevertheless these trips account for a significant proportion of the sector's overall environmental impacts. For example, freight and passenger long‑distance transport demand together account for up to three-quarters of GHG transport emissions. International aviation and maritime transport alone are responsible for 19 % of Europe's NOX emissions, 17 % of overall SOX emissions and 11 % of PM2.5 emissions.

Transport has however traditionally been considered a key instrument for European integration, and demand growth has been associated with the development of the single internal market and with increasing transboundary interaction among Europeans. Transport data suggest that a peak in this trend has been achieved during the last decade; further long‑distance transport growth would rely mainly on extra-EU travel. To achieve Europe's long‑term sustainability objectives in the transport sector, reducing the future impacts of long‑distance travel will therefore be important.

There is still, however, a significant need for better information to allow an improved monitoring of the life-cycle environmental impacts of long‑distance transport:

  • Firstly, there is still a need for comprehensive assessment of GHG emissions, including the life cycles for infrastructure (from construction to maintenance and renewal), vehicles (from manufacturing to end-of-life disposal) and fuel (including extraction, processing and distribution), and also covering maritime and aviation emissions; this is complicated by data limitations such as international differences in the definitions of fuel categories.
  • Secondly, there is a need to differentiate between GHG emissions of passengers and freight by transport mode.
  • Thirdly, GHG emissions and other environmental impacts should be more clearly related to door-to-door trips, taking into account the actual transport modes and routes chosen within the travel chain, and the environmental footprint of activities associated with transport within the trip.

Understanding long‑distance transport demand
The transport modes responsible for the most long‑distance passenger transport demand (mainly cars for medium-range trips, and aviation for long‑distance trips) appear to have peaked recently, aviation recorded its highest demand in 2011 and car travel demand remaining below its 2009 peak. Passenger rail is growing, although this increase is limited to the reduced number of corridors where high-speed rail is available. In spite of technical developments and attempts to raise occupancy rates, average specific emissions per passenger and kilometre across all modes have not significantly decreased in recent years.

Whereas long‑distance passenger demand growth, especially for air travel, can be linked to higher household disposable income particularly in the new EU Member States, past passenger demand growth in many EU-15 Member States has been associated with migration patterns as the key component of past population growth. Induced demand is likely to be another influential component, as a consequence of falling prices due to the yield management strategies of a growing number of long‑distance transport operators and certain types of unequal treatment (i.e. fuel tax exemption for air transport). Accordingly, the expectations for future significant growth of long‑distance passenger transport demand, common over the past decade, are currently being revised, as the trends for these key drivers now appear more uncertain. Furthermore, shifts away from traditional rates of high car-ownership seem more likely in a part of the population, particularly the younger generation. Such developments in lifestyle patterns are being closely followed by researchers.

Three-quarters of total freight transport (tonne‑kilometres (tkm)) in the EU-28 is associated with distances greater than 300 km. Total long‑distance freight transport volumes decreased between 2005 and 2010, albeit with large fluctuations in-between. Modal shares have remained largely constant over the last decade, with shipping dominating long distances, accounting for 53 % of total freight transport volumes. Road and rail follow, with 37 % and 10 % respectively.

Options for reducing the health and environmental impacts of long‑distance transport
Measures for improving the environmental performance of long‑distance transport can be classified into three groups, although in practice, the distinction between the three approaches may not always be clear-cut:

  1. 'avoid' measures aim to reduce transport trips or distances;
  2. 'shift' measures enable and encourage transfer from road and aviation to more environmentally friendly modes; and
  3. 'improve' measures aim to bring down energy consumption and emissions of all travel modes by introducing more efficient technologies and cleaner fuels.

In terms of 'avoid' measures, long‑distance passenger travel is undertaken for both business and leisure purposes. Particularly in the case of business purposes, companies and workers may have a shared interest in limiting their trips and making more extensive use of information and communications technology (ICT) as a way to reduce costs and increase productivity. For freight transport, the development of improved logistics is viewed as an opportunity to reduce travel demand by improving the load factor of vehicles, and by making use of the appropriate mode at each link of the transport chain. Further cooperation among hauliers and shippers could lead to better information flows on available loads and means of transport. However, collaboration may give rise to difficult legal issues such as potential infringements of anti-trust legislation. One solution may lie in offering support to independent intermediaries, but progress in this direction has also proven to be difficult in the past.

For more than a decade, 'shift' measures in the EU have focused on confronting all transport modes with their full costs, including the costs of 'negative externalities' they cause (e.g. congestion, air pollution, GHG emissions). Policies have subsequently been developed such as charging road transport users for the use of the infrastructure, and revising fuel taxes to include a CO2 component. In addition, a wide range of policy measures have been taken to improve the attractiveness of non-road modes, including financial support mechanisms and attempts to remove administrative and technical barriers. The Heavy Vehicle Fee, which has been implemented in Switzerland since 2001, is a successful example of road charging.

'Improve' measures in the EU typically refer to policies which establish technical standards and limit values e.g. limits on noise levels, emission limits for air pollutants for road vehicles, inland vessels and diesel locomotives and railcars; and CO2 emission limits for road vehicles. In the international maritime and aviation sectors regulations are developed at the global level, and progress in establishing binding reduction targets has been slow. However, for the maritime sector, a first success was recorded through the 2011 agreement by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on an Energy Efficiency Design Index (EEDI) for new ships. For aviation, some progress was achieved in 2013 when the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) committed to designing a global CO2 emissions offsetting scheme that could be implemented from 2020. The concrete emission savings that such schemes will deliver however remain unclear.

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