Rebuilding a sustainable and smart transport network

By Adina Valean, EU Commissioner for Transport, (pictured)
Summer 2021

Adina Valean, EU Commissioner for Transport"The measure of intelligence is the ability to change," according to Albert Einstein. And change we have. 100 years ago, the car was just starting to become a common sight in Europe, and scheduled passenger flights were still rare.

A lot has changed since then, making transport a huge European success story. I like to think that Einstein would be impressed by our intelligence – but also our European transport system!

The wheels of change have never actually stopped – we have continued to adapt alongside a changing world and new technologies. But now it is time to step up a gear, to accelerate change, and to unleash the dual green and digital revolutions in mobility.

Traditionally, revolutions have winners and losers. In this revolution, there will be many winners.

Investing in innovation will secure European leadership in clean transport technologies, and boost our competitiveness, supporting our recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

And accelerating the digitalisation of transport will save money, increase comfort and safety, and open up a whole new range of mobility services for individuals and businesses alike. Imagine your vehicle knowing where to find free parking spaces. This would be equally interesting for shoppers and long-distance lorry drivers.

To guide the transport sector through these transitions, and to show the rest of the world that we are serious about our transport ambitions, we have devised a 'Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy', complete with action points and milestones.

Challenges... and solutions
The challenges are clear. To cut transport emissions by 90% by 2050, we need to shift more freight to trains and barges – our greenest transport modes. We need nearly all cars to be low or zero-emission by 2050; today, electric vehicles account for around 10% of all vehicles sold. We need to see renewable and low-carbon fuels accounting for 60% of aviation and 80% of maritime fuels by 2050.

The technologies needed are today in their infancy. We need to make combining transport modes easy, and a natural reflex. This requires new tools (so that we can buy electronic, multi-mode tickets) and new infrastructure (so that we can easily jump off a ferry and onto a metro – for example).

These challenges are not insurmountable
Aviation faces challenges in cutting its emissions – that is clear. But we have a plan, and we are acting on it. The role of fuels cannot be overestimated; only they promise significant emission reductions without the need for a new generation of aircraft technology, which would take time to roll out. For the EU to hit its emissions goals, sustainable fuels must account for around 5% of aviation's fuel mix by 2030, and more than 60% by 2050.

Unfortunately, production is still at a very early stage. I am however confident that our upcoming ReFuelEU Aviation initiative will take us to the next level. It will significantly boost both the production and uptake of sustainable aviation fuels, and establish a longterm regulatory framework at EU level, avoiding reliance on national initiatives.

The fuel industry needs time to ramp up capacity and production. Targets must be realistic – initially modest but becoming more ambitious beyond 2030 – and should include a prominent role for synthetic fuels in aviation. Manufacturers are already working on engines that can function on these fuels, and their production poses no threat to land use or water reserves. With the right economic and regulatory environment, our analysis suggests that synthetic fuels will become one of the main routes to decarbonising aviation.

Of course, the regulatory framework for SAF will also need flanking measures to promote the development of the market, including targeted financial support, and certification for fuels – all while preserving fair competition. We will therefore work with public authorities, the industry, producers, suppliers, airlines, and civil society to establish a Renewable and Low-Carbon Fuels Value Chain Alliance, to boost the supply and deployment of the most promising fuels.

Road transport also has work to do – it currently accounts for the highest proportion of overall transport emissions at around 71% in 2018. The sector is however expected to decarbonise faster than others. While sales of electric vehicles are still low, they trebled in 2020 to reach 10.5%.

To push that figure higher still, we need more charging points. Drivers need to be reassured that when they head out on a long journey, including across borders, they will be able to charge their car when they need to. Today, what we have serves the existing vehicle fleet, but deployment is uneven across the EU. We currently have more than 200,000 publicly accessible recharging points, serving more than 1.6 million electric vehicles.

Moving forward, we have targets. By 2025, we will install 1 million of the 3 million charging points needed. By 2030, we will also install 500 of the 1,000 hydrogen refuelling points needed. With the infrastructure in place, meeting our additional goal of having at least 30 million zero emission vehicles on EU roads by 2030 should happen naturally.

Transitioning to a new power base is an enormous undertaking, and comes with a significant price tag. So we are in discussion with the Member States on extending our successful finance blending approach to alternative fuels infrastructure under the Connecting Europe Facility.

Rebuilding after COVID
We cannot ignore the fact that our strategy comes as many in the transport sector are struggling from one day to the next. COVID-19 brought cross-border travel close to a standstill, and even annihilated demand for domestic travel. For some, talk of investment for the future may seem inappropriate.

But the areas in which we are proposing investment – in decarbonisation and digitalisation – are also the same areas that will strengthen the sector, protecting it from future shocks. It is an opportunity to build back better.

And I have reason for to be optimistic as we rebuild, refocus and redouble our efforts to step up decarbonisation. We have a wealth of talent to draw upon, we are leading the way in key technologies, we have the drive and – most of important of all – in Europe we are working together to make change happen. Einstein would be proud.