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European Parliament elections 2024: which direction for sustainable transport?

This year’s European Parliament elections offer a unique opportunity for European citizens to have their say and contribute to setting the direction of future transport policies. Will cross-border rail travel become cheaper and more reliable? Will electric vehicles become more accessible to the broader public? Will cities become cleaner and more liveable? The results of this election will not only shape the way people and goods move around but will also determine whether Europe is on track to becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050.


Why transport matters

The free movement of people and goods across national borders is a fundamental freedom of the European Union (EU) and its single market. The transport sector contributes 5% to the European Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and directly employs around 10 million workers, making it decisive for economic development as well as for the social well-being and cohesion of populations.

The situation is not all roses, however. European transport is responsible for a quarter of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and is the only sector whose emissions are still growing. What is more, despite heterogeneity across the different transport modes, transport activities are a major contributor to ambient air- and noise-pollution with negative consequences for human health and the environment. 

Besides their significant environmental footprint, our transport systems have shown to be particularly vulnerable to external shocks, be these climate change or pandemics. To illustrate, extreme heat bends railway tracks and sags overhead cables, forcing trains to run at lower speed. Meanwhile, 80 airports worldwide could become submerged by rising sea levels if current emission trends continue. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, on the other hand, brought transport to a standstill with public transit ridership having seen decreases between 80% and 90% during the lockdowns in every major Italian city. Such impacts have detrimental socio-economic and connectivity implications, thus underscoring the need for future-proof policies in the sector.


Taking stock of progress achieved to date

In recognition of the above, the outgoing von der Leyen Commission (2019-2024) has elevated the greening of transport high on its agenda. Its landmark European Green Deal stressed the need for a collective 90% reduction in transport emissions by mid-century compared to 1990 levels, with all modes having to contribute their fair share. The Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy followed up with a concrete action plan laying out the foundation for European transport to reach its climate targets, while reiterating that ‘greening must be the new license for the transport sector to grow’.

Important legislative advances were also achieved. To name a few, an agreement was struck to phase out new sales of internal combustion engines by 2035; new rules were agreed to accelerate the rollout of electric vehicle recharging infrastructure in public spaces as well as in buildings; and the bloc adopted its very first mandate for the supply and uptake of sustainable aviation fuels at European airports. While the list of positive developments is to be commended, the work is far from done. Adopted legislation is yet to be implemented and efforts are to be intensified to pave the way for net zero emissions.

Placing transport on a firm path to meeting its Green Deal objectives will require companies to significantly reduce their dependence on fossil fuels by replacing existing fleets with low- and zero-emission vehicles and boosting the use of renewable and low-carbon fuels. Easier to decarbonise modes, namely land transport, will have to make progress quicker to compensate for the slower progress expected from more technically difficult to decarbonise transport modes, such as aviation and shipping. A greater share of passenger traffic will have to shift away from aviation onto railways, public transport and active mobility, whereas freight flows will have to increasingly shift away from road onto railways and inland waterways. Where necessary, mobility may even need to be curbed. All this can only be viable if the transport users are on board.

With this in mind, the next EU mandate (2024-2029) will be decisive in terms of putting in place a conducive regulatory and financial framework for the necessary technological, operational and demand changes to materialise.


Getting users to pay the true environmental cost of transport

On the regulatory front, the coming years will need to deliver policies that get users to pay the true environmental cost of transport. To illustrate, railways are the most efficient form of passenger transport in the EU today, with greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometre that are only a fraction of most other modes. Despite their green credentials, rail journeys continue to be more expensive than air travel today. Part of the reason for this imbalance is that the cost of air travel does not reflect its true impacts on the climate and environment.

The provision of cost-reflective price signals is considered the most effective incentive mechanism to nudge users towards more sustainable transport choices. Such incentives can include carbon pricing, taxation, and infrastructure charging and should be complemented by improved information to users. Pricing, for instance, can facilitate the switch to cleaner fuels and transport modes, optimise capacity utilisation, and manage demand, thereby alleviating congestion during peak hours.


Factoring in social justice and competitiveness into green mobility policies

To add to the challenge, policymakers will have to guarantee that the decarbonisation of transport is done in a socially just manner while preserving the competitiveness of European industry. Failure to factor in these considerations risks generating stronger resistance to climate policies among the conservative and populist political parties.

Transport services will need to remain affordable and accessible for citizens and businesses, without compromising the connectivity of rural and remote regions across the EU. A conducive EU regulatory and financial framework will be crucial in ensuring that industrial production remains in Europe and that new jobs are being created locally. Here, re-skilling and training opportunities will need to be provided to equip the workforce with the necessary skillset for the green mobility transition.


Climate-proofing transport investments

Another priority will be to ensure that investment decisions are linked to robust sustainability indicators. The definition of common EU rules for economic activities that are considered environmentally sustainable (and conversely environmentally harmful) will be of crucial importance in guiding ‘green investments’, while limiting stranded assets.

Since transport sector assets and infrastructures are typically capital-intensive in nature and marked by long operational lifetimes, investment decisions taken today will likely have implications for the decades to come. In the same spirit, the votes we cast this June will have long-lasting implications on the regulatory and spending landscape, shaping our mobility systems for the foreseeable future and determining their compatibility with a climate-neutral Europe.


Since November 2023, Teodora Serafimova is Editorial Board Member at the Green Mobility Magazine, the first periodical dedicated to the nexus between transport and sustainability. In her previous role as Research Associate at the Transport Area of the Florence School of Regulation (2019-2023), Teodora was in charge of research and analysis on transport regulation with a focus on sustainability and decarbonisation. During her time at FSR, she has authored and co-authored 34 publications, amongst which 28 policy briefs, five technical reports and one book.

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