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Europe’s decarbonization: EU legislation in the transport and mobility sector

Source: Ars Electronica

Europe has the ambitious goal of becoming the first climate-neutral continent, and it plans to do so by 2050. But this can only be achieved if the European transport and mobility sector is completely revolutionized since it represents 5% of the European GDP but 25% of its GHG emissions. Unfortunately for us, there is no silver bullet: from securing renewable fuels and battery supply chains, to exponentially increasing charging infrastructure, every element needs to undergo tremendous change. All this while also ensuring that this evolution doesn’t leave anyone behind. That’s why the transport and mobility sector has been one of the EU’s legislative focal points.

Disparities across the European continent

According to a policy paper published as part of the EAFO 2.0 contract (European Alternative Fuels Observatory) at the end of 2020, which provides recommendations for policymaking at the European level, the uptake of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure is concentrated in a few markets, and disparities are strong between countries at the European scale. Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands had a combined 70% share of Europe’s pre-covid electric passenger car fleet. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden also led in new electric passenger car registrations, recording 70% of total BEV (battery electric vehicles) and PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) registrations. The Netherlands had the largest number of public recharging points, followed by France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Norway; these five countries covered 73% of public recharging points in Europe at the end of 2020.

The paper also finds that this same year was a breakthrough for the electric passenger car market in most European countries. Overall, electric vehicles’ share in the European fleet reached 11% in 2020, up from 3.6% the year before. Norway kept its role as frontrunner with 75% of all new passenger car registrations being a BEV or a PHEV. Iceland had a share of 51% and Sweden 32%. With the exceptions of Cyprus, Liechtenstein, and Malta, European countries recorded higher total electric passenger car registrations in 2020 compared to all previous year. Slovakia, Greece, and the Czech Republic experienced the highest growth rates between 2019 and 2020. The paper highlights that is the case thanks to tighter CO2 emission performance standards which successfully boosted the European electric passenger car market in 2020.

The European Union’s Strategy

Reaching the ambitious goal of a 90% reduction in GHG emissions in the transport and mobility sector, which was first outlined in the European Green Deal, demands a set of regulations and targets to steer states, companies, and consumers in the right direction. Recently, the European Commission presented its ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’ action plan, which lays the foundations of how the EU transport system can achieve its green and digital transformation and become more resilient to future crises. This legal framework revolves around three pillars: sustainable mobility, smart mobility, and resilient mobility. But what does it mean in practice?

For sustainability, the main initiatives are the following. Installing 3 million public charging points by 2030, creating zero-emission airports and ports by promoting sustainable aviation and maritime fuels. Also making changes to urban and interurban mobility, for instance by doubling high-speed rail traffic and developing extra cycling infrastructure. Other changes include greening freight transport by doubling rail freight traffic by 2050, and pricing carbon to provide better economic incentives for users – fair and efficient pricing across all transport, especially making changes in trains and planes.

Source: European Council

Looking at smart mobility: innovation and digitalization will certainly shape how passengers and freight move around in the future. The European strategy revolves, for example, on making connected and automated multimodal mobility a reality. This basically means allowing passengers to buy tickets for multimodal journeys and freight to seamlessly switch between transport modes. It’s also about boosting innovation and the use of data and artificial intelligence. For instance, by fully supporting the deployment of drones and unmanned aircraft and further actions to build a European Common Mobility Data Space.

By “resilient mobility”, the European Union incorporates in its strategy the fact that transport has been one of the sectors hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that many businesses in the sector are struggling, both in terms of finances and operations. That’s why the European Commission has committed to reinforce the single market through investments to complete the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) by 2030 and support the investments, both public and private, aimed at the modernization of fleets. The Commission also aims to make step up transport safety and security across all modes - including by bringing the death toll close to zero by 2050.


The European Union has provided a timeline in order to monitor advances. Let’s start with 2030. The EU hopes to have at least 30 million zero-emission cars on European roads, which is a massive increase from our current level of 1.4 million EVs. Also, at least 100 large European cities will be climate neutral: Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Dublin, Brussels, Rome, Stockholm, Vilnius, etc. Journeys under 500km should all be carbon neutral, and zero-emission marine vessels will be ready for market implementation.

By 2035, zero-emission large aircrafts should also be market-ready (ReFuel EU Aviation proposal).

By 2050, nearly all cars, vans, buses as well as new heavy-duty vehicles will be zero-emission. Also, as previously mentioned, rail freight traffic will double and the multimodal Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) will be fully operational.


Regardless of the EU’s detailed strategy and commitments to accompany through investments, it’s still facing doubts and criticism from many groups within the transport and mobility sector. Amongst them, lobbies representing legacy car manufacturers and airlines which hope to delay and slow the pace of legislative changes. For instance, last June, a vote of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to adopt revised CO2 standards was met with a strong fight from Germany’s automotive lobby (the VDA), which claimed that the decision was “taken against citizens, against the market, against innovation and against modern technologies”. Italian MEPs also tried to secure an amendment that exempted luxury carmakers, such as Ferrari.

Many firms also feel that they are being left behind and pushed too fast by the European Union towards radical changes. For instance, Bosch, Europe’s largest car parts supplier, claims that the EU is fixated on electric vehicles, which causes it to overlook other low-emission transport technologies such as hydrogen and synthetic fuels. The chief executive said that “climate action is not about the end of the internal-combustion engine, [but] about the end of fossil fuels. And while electromobility and green charging power make road transport carbon neutral, so do renewable fuels”.

In conclusion, the EU has set ambitious, yet necessary, goals through its laws. But consumers and producers are already struggling to keep up, and the hardest part of the journey is still facing us. So it will be up to the European Union to redouble its efforts in the transport and mobility sector if it hopes to meet its objectives.


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