EU transport sector has a CO2 problem
By Peter Teffer
It was a bit of a stain on the reputation of the German energy transition, celebrated at a conference in Berlin last week.
As praise was given to Germany's unprecedented increase in renewable energies, the German Environment Agency reported that CO2 emissions, contributing to possibly disruptive climate change, have gone up in 2016.
The main culprit: Germany's transport sector.
According to the German Environment Agency, emissions in the transport sector increased by 3.4 percent compared to 2015, and are now 2 million tonnes above the 1990 level.
“If the transport sector does not move quickly, we will miss our climate protection targets,” the agency's president, Maria Krautzberger, said in a press release.
Greg Archer, campaigner for Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment, said it a bit more directly, in one of the panel discussions at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue on 21 March.
“While the rest of the German economy is busy decarbonising, transport is busy off-setting those emissions reductions by increasing its own emissions,” he noted.
The increase in transport CO2 is not just a German phenomenon.
While most sectors have achieved CO2 reductions, there is an EU-wide problem with transport.
Transport, including international aviation, was responsible for 14.9 percent of all EU greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 – in 2014 it was 23.2 percent. Cars are responsible for around 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
All large car and van manufacturers met their EU emissions targets in 2015, but this is an average measured fleet-wide. Meanwhile, the total usage of cars has increased.
And while cars achieving the average goal of 130 grams of CO2 per kilometre in 2015 is an important indicator of success, the achievement itself has become worth less in recent years.
That is because the laboratory-based measuring method of CO2 emissions has become increasingly artificial.
“The reality is that for four years new cars have not actually been any more efficient on the road,” said Archer in Berlin, pointing to a “hopelessly outdated testing system” which has allowed car manufacturers to use loopholes.
During the official test, companies are allowed to inflate tyres beyond what is normally recommended, remove wing mirrors, and use special lubricants.
Several studies have shown that actual fuel consumption, which is closely linked to CO2 emissions, is often much higher than when it is measured in the laboratory.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) and the Netherlands’ Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), fuel consumption in passenger cars was, on average, 42 percent higher than official figures claimed in 2015.
This gap between real-world CO2 emissions and measured ones in the lab had been less than 10 percent in 2001.
If that sounds familiar, that may be because EUobserver has reported extensively about the Dieselgate scandal, which saw Volkswagen Group (VW) cheating on emissions tests.
That scandal was about nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx), which do not impact much on climate change, but they do directly affect the environment and human health.
For years, the EU and its member states were aware that there was an increasing gap between real-world NOx emissions, and those measured in the laboratory. Already in 2010, the European Commission's in-house think tank reported that NOx emissions in probed diesel cars were 6 or 7 times higher than they should be.
In the United States, NOx discrepancies in VW diesels pushed the authorities there to investigate why the gap was so big, and led to the German car manufacturer confessing in September 2015.
Some reports have indicated that there might also be a Petrolgate, with Bild am Sonntag and the Wall Street Journal reporting last November that the VW subsidiary, Audi, had used emission-cheating software in both diesel and petrol cars - targeting the CO2 tests.
If this is true, that could create a new dent in the car industry's public image. While NOx emissions are harmful to the environment and human health, it is difficult to prove a direct causal link between VW's cheating and a specific human death caused by air pollution.
However, if there was cheating on CO2 emissions, this would have hurt consumers in their wallets.
The ICCT-TNO report stated that annual fuel expenses for new vehicles may be around €450 higher than if fuel consumption was consistent with what was being advertised.
As of September 2017, the laboratory test will be replaced by one that is more realistic. The new test however is still laboratory-based, and while it is expected to reduce the gap, it will not eliminate it entirely.
T&E's Archer told the Berlin panel audience that the EU should introduce a real-world test for fuel economy, as it already has for diesel NOx emissions.
He also called for mandatory sales targets of electric vehicles, because car manufacturers have not made the effort to promote electric cars over those powered by fossil fuels.
Archer said the car industry spent €904 million on advertising in Germany alone.
“How much of that was spent on marketing electric vehicles? Just [over] 4 percent of it: €42 million. And half of that came from one company: Volkswagen,” he said.
In 2016, only 1.1 percent of all cars sold in the EU were fuelled by electricity, according to car industry lobby group Acea. This was the same figure as the year before.
Hybrid vehicles saw a small increase, rising from 1.6 percent to 1.9 percent of sales, but cars powered by fossil fuels still made up virtually the entire share.
The European Commission is due this year to announce new CO2 emissions targets for after 2020.
A 2015 legislative roadmap said the indicative planning for the legislative proposal to be published was before Friday (31 March), but a commission spokeswoman noted that this planning was “non-binding” and that the proposal “will follow later this year”.
It may seem like there is still plenty of time ahead of 2020 but, then again, the previous setting of CO2 emission targets for cars took almost two years.