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Blog: Put your foot down: why Europe needs to do more to support cleaner transport

last modified Nov 21, 2017 02:27 PM
17 November 2017 – With transport accounting for a quarter of global energy-related emissions, Jill Duggan, Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, outlines the need for Europe to pick up the pace in move towards low carbon transport.

At the UN climate talks in Bonn, electric buses glide silently between the two main venues, ferrying conference goers from one event to another with zero emissions. Mini police cars – like golf buggies – ply the autumnal parkland between the ‘Bonn’ and ‘Bula’ zones, a quiet electric buzz the only warning as they approach.

Of course this is as it should be at an event all about reducing greenhouse gases in order to limit the global warming that is already happening to something manageable rather than catastrophic. In the same way, the catering hubs at COP23 proclaim their eco-credentials, and the organisers offer attendees the chance to carbon offset their travel.

But is this also a vision of the near future in Europe? Will electric vehicles soon be the norm and will the next generation look back in horror at the idea that we once tolerated smog-choked streets and particle-filled air that made us sick, even as the use fossil fuels warmed our planet to the point of catastrophe?

That depends. There are certainly some signs that this is the direction of travel (pun intended). A new report from The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, which I lead, notes that the number of electric vehicles sold worldwide is predicted to rise from 448,000 in 2015 to over a million this year – and the growth is exponential, not linear. Improvements in range and affordability are shifting consumer attitudes to the extent that EVs are no longer only the preserve of early adopters and eco-warriors.

And yet, arguably Europe is not doing enough to ensure its businesses are at the forefront of the new trends in road transport. After years of misguided official promotion of diesel engines, Europe’s incumbent carmakers lag behind the likes of Tesla in the US, BYD in China, and Nissan in Japan who are leading the way in EV development.

Europe also faces challenges if it is to realise the emerging opportunities in the ecosystem around EVs. Take battery production, for example. Batteries are obviously key to the viability and success of electric cars, and much work is going into increasing battery life and reducing weight. This is a growth market full of promise. And yet, currently only 5 per cent of global battery production takes place in Europe, compared to around 20 per cent of global passenger vehicle production.

Last week, the European Union issued its proposal for post-2020 CO2 targets for cars and vans. Given the urgent need to clean up the air in our cities, and the global imperative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions fast, this was a disappointingly unambitious document. With a target of only a 30 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and only a voluntary benchmark of 30 per cent zero and low emission vehicles by 2030, Europe’s policymakers set the bar so low that most carmakers will be able to drive right over it.

This is not what business needs. In spite of the lobbying by some in the industry against more rigorous standards, there are others, including members of our group, who see the new business possibilities in a cleaner transport sector and want more support and encouragement to take them up.

Whether its collaborating to establish the necessary charging infrastructure, or using European expertise to help maximise the benefits of automation and computerisation, there is lots that EU business could do both at home and abroad, given a more ambitious set of targets and clearer signals from government.

Rather than seeking to prop up outdated business models, Europe’s policymakers should pass legislation and invest in infrastructure that encourages innovation. They need to send much stronger signals that the era of the internal combustion engine is over, so that European companies invest in new technology and skills here, rather than choosing to import products from the US or Asia.

These UN gatherings always inspire both hope and a sense of déjà vu. The signal sent very clearly by governments at the 2015 meeting in Paris was that they took the threat of climate change seriously and were prepared to co-operate to tackle and overcome it. With transport accounting for a quarter of global energy-related emissions, and rising, seizing the opportunities for green reform is imperative – and offers a win-win for consumers, businesses, governments and the planet. 

Jill Duggan speaking at the COP Talk Show on “­­­­­Celebrating Transport Climate Action” .
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About the author

Jill Duggan

Jill Duggan is the Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group which brings together businesses to work towards a step change in policy and action on climate change.

Jill has extensive experience of international climate and energy policy from both government and industry perspectives. She was formerly Head of International Emissions Trading at DECC and Defra and has been deeply involved in the development of climate policy in the UK and Europe as well as working extensively in the United States and Canada.

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