Rolling towards a greener tomorrow?

Rolling towards a greener tomorrow?

Last year saw significant global changes to the transport industry, some more temporary than others. We set our sights on Europe to see how the pandemic is affecting the continent.

According to the European Federation for Transport and Environment, commonly referred to as Transport and Environment (T&E), fears of airborne infection have reduced passenger numbers on buses, trams and trains across Europe. A survey found that Spaniards feel more insecure in public transport than anywhere else – even bars.

There was also an increase in e-commerce as shops were closed and everyone was forced to go online. During the first lockdown e-commerce picked up by around 30%, in April, compared to 2019 and individual delivery firms saw growth ranging from 15% to a whopping 50%.

With significantly more home deliveries, T&E warns that a shift to zero-emission trucks and vans is needed to ensure this doesn’t lead to more polluted cities.

Less pollution: up in the air?

T&E notes that air pollution causes an estimated 379 000 early deaths in the European Union (EU) each year and scientists warn that those living in polluted cities are likely more at risk from Covid-19. Lockdowns in Brussels, London, Madrid and Paris brought a rapid drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) traffic pollution of 43%, 54%, 71% and 76% respectively.

The pollution in Paris hit a 40-year low and Milanese residents could clearly see the nearby Alps again. Polling at the time found that a strong majority of urban residents wanted to keep the cleaner air. But pollution levels have since rebounded and in some cities even exceeded the lockdown low.

The exceptionally clean air experienced during the early lockdown period can be made permanent, however, through a realistic switch to cleaner transport, new analysis shows.

Released one year after the first lockdowns were put in place in Europe the study, commissioned by T&E, comes as governments prepare to spend nearly €700 billion in EU Covid recovery funds, a third of which is earmarked for green investments, including transport.

The researchers found that cities can permanently achieve pandemic-low air pollution levels by accelerating the ongoing switch to zero-emission vehicles, as well as extra walking, cycling, public transport and teleworking.

In Madrid, 10% of all kilometres travelled by light- and heavy-commercial vehicles, as well as 94% of car-km, would have to go zero emission to replicate lockdown levels. In Paris, 67% of all kilometres driven by cars, vans and trucks need to go zero emissions.

Public transport doing its part

Denmark leads the way when it comes to putting zero-emission urban buses on the streets in Europe, with 78% of new vehicles being electric, according to the latest data from T&E. In Luxembourg and the Netherlands about two-thirds of new buses are zero emissions.

In Sweden, Norway and Finland, respectively 26%, 24%, and 23% of urban buses registered in 2019 were zero emission (electric or hydrogen). Worryingly, Italy, Poland, Germany, the UK, Spain and France, which buy 70% of the urban buses sold in Europe, lag behind. In 2019, less than 10% of their newly registered urban buses were electric or hydrogen.

Germany took a significant step forward last year, though, and is now financing 80% of the higher purchase cost of e-buses. And Poland announced that in cities with populations of 100 000 or more, all public transport will be fully electric by 2030, allocating €290 million to support this objective.

But more member states need to step up, and T&E highlights that the EU’s €700 billion Covid recovery fund is a clear way to finance e-bus deployment. This will be essential for the countries at the bottom of the table: Austria and Ireland registered no zero-emission urban buses in 2019, while in Switzerland and Greece less than 4% of new buses were emissions free.

“Urban bus fleets drive millions of kilometres every year,” points out James Nix, freight manager at T&E. “If we want to decarbonise our cities, these vehicles must become emissions free as soon as possible. Nordic states, Luxembourg and the Netherlands are showing how to put e-buses on the road. Other countries, especially those buying a lot of buses, like Italy, Spain and France, and those at the very start of the transition, such as Austria, need to step it up.”

T&E notes that there are five key steps to get e-buses on the road, starting with political leadership and financial support. For example, the Dutch government specified in 2016 that all newly procured buses must be zero emission from 2025, and from 2030, all buses in use must be zero emissions. And as part of the public procurement process, bus contracts should be awarded only to operators meeting or exceeding these targets.

“Zero-emission urban buses help us combat air pollution, tackle climate change, reduce noise and offer cheaper total costs than diesel buses over their lifetime,” Nix says. “EU member states must ensure the Covid recovery plans they are currently writing fund the replacement of fossil buses with zero-emission ones.”

Rolling towards a greener tomorrow?

Looking further into a future, without internal combustion engines in cities, T&E’s post-lockdown study finds that NO2 pollution from traffic would be eliminated and small particles would be cut by up to 66%.

Jens Müller, air quality coordinator at T&E’s Clean Cities Campaign, adds: “We all remember the clean air as an unexpected side effect of the early lockdowns. This literal breath of fresh air for cities came after decades of being shrouded by pollution. Our study shows how mayors can permanently bring cleaner air back without the lockdowns. [The onus] is now on them to use their powers to boost clean travel options like electric vehicles and low-emission zones.”

T&E calls on all European officials to increase zero-emission zones, reform taxes to favour emissions-free vehicles, roll out the right charging infrastructure and zone off more public space to walking, cycling and public transport. It also calls on the EU to announce a phase-out date for all fossil fuel vehicles by 2035, at the latest, and a tightening of its 2025 CO2 standards for cars, vans, trucks and buses.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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