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Time to Stop Cars Driving Climate Change

30/03/2016 08:49

I recently read an interview with Brian Ricketts, head of EuroCoal. In a decarbonising world, his can be no easy job, and Brian found himself on the sharp end of a question on coal emissions, posed by a Brussels-based journalist. When it was pointed out that coal emits more CO2 than any other fossil fuel, Brian gazed out the window and noted that the media office was located on one of the most polluted streets in Europe and there wasn't a coal-fired power station in sight. Sometimes it is easy to shout about coal and overlook the greenhouse gas emitter in the garage.

The street in question, Rue de la Loi is a six lane motorway that bisects Brussels' EU Quarter. Stand outside the Commission HQ about 5.00pm any work day and you will witness a car jam of near epic proportions. Brussels is the most congested city in Europe, with the average Bruxellois spending 83 hours a year stuck in traffic. This despite the fact that the city has one of the most extensive public transport systems in Europe.

Underlining Rickett's comment is a valid issue; for all our efforts to address the emissions from coal, we are guilty of taking precious few steps to address emissions from road vehicles. With Scotland's last coal-fired power station closed this month after 44 years of production (largely as a result of the EU's Large Combustion Plants Directive) it does beg the question, if we are serious about climate change, when will we scrap the last fossil-fuelled motor car?

Transport emissions comprise nearly a quarter of all emissions, making it the second highest emitting sector after energy generation. However, unlike energy, whose emissions have consistently remained below 1990 levels, emissions from the transport sector have sky-rocketed.

Since 1990, emissions from the energy sector have fallen, driven down by several heavy duty EU environmental rules, like the Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) (which limits flue gas emissions from plants with a thermal capacity of 50MW or greater), its successor, the Industrial Emissions Directive and the Emissions Trading Scheme (the reform of which I am currently leading in the European Parliament). It is estimated that the LCPD alone closed a third of the UK's coal fired power stations.

Despite a welter of legislation on things that don't move, the Commission has been remarkably reticent to legislate the things that do. I am currently working on a dossier by the exciting name of 'Proposal for a Regulation on requirements relating to emission limits and type-approval for internal combustion engines for non-road mobile machinery.' It covers vehicles like cranes, trains, and hand held chainsaws. Its ambition is to upgrade the engines and so reduce their emissions. When it is adopted it will be the first piece of emission legislation affecting any vehicle adopted since 2012. Note however that we are not talking about cars. The automobile remains untouched by Eurocratic hands. The last substantive piece of legislation dealing with emissions from cars came into force in 2007.

Europe has a love affair with the car. By way of illustration, I attended the inaugural meeting of the Committee of Inquiry into the diesel-gate scandal. Before it got down to business, a centre right MEP gave an impassioned speech in defence of diesel technology and the importance of the automotive industry to the EU. Interesting that the first recorded speech of the Committee should be in defence of the diesel engines and not in condemnation of the 'cheat devices' which allowed those diesel engines to emit nitrogen oxide at rates 40% above their declared level.

Worth noting that not a single piece of legislation has sought to address the more fundamental concern that cars run on fossil fuels, the combustion of which generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.

And so what of electric or hybrid cars? As of December 2015 there were 419,000 registered plug-in electric cars in Europe. Not bad, you say. Indeed, but out of a total car fleet of about 240 million vehicles (that's 0.175% for the mathematicians amongst you)? Given that we add 12 million fossil-fuelled cars to the fleet each year that means that the share of electric cars is actually falling year on year.

It is Norway (outside the EU) which has the most electric cars on the continent. Since 1991 the country has been incentivising electric car usage, exempting all electric vehicles from sales tax and VAT (knocking more than 25% off the ticket price), exempting them from road tax, all public parking fees and all road tolls. The share of the Norwegian car fleet powered by electricity: 2%.

The UK has also sought to incentivise the take up of electric cars. The 'Plug in Car' Grant offered a cash incentive of up to £5,000 to all who bought an electric car. Launched in 2011, by 2014 half of the available grants lay unclaimed. Even free money was not enough to encourage the culture change necessary to convert the fleet from fossil fuel to electricity.

Coal, oil and gas burning energy plants have borne the brunt of the EU's emission ambitions so far, but a time is fast approaching when it is not the power plants far from our home that will do the heavy lifting but the car in our garage. Are you ready to turn off the ignition of your fossil-fuelled car? The clock is ticking.

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