Transforming the transport sector is crucial for the success of the clean-energy transition.
Transportation shapes everyday life like almost nothing else. It allows people to commute to work, do errands, visit friends and family, and explore new cities and countries. It enables participation in social life, and also fulfils an essential economic function. Without it, people wouldn’t be able to buy products from distant countries or sell their own abroad. And while globalisation has created problems, on the whole it has brought people closer together. Transportation has been an essential enabler in this process.
For all its benefits, transportation can have negative impacts on human health and quality of life. It creates noise, generates pollution, takes up space, and scars the landscape. Back in 1973, the German Advisory Council on the Environment said so much in its very first report, concluding that “transportation can do more harm than good” for the general public.1
This insight still applies today, both in Germany and other countries. At present, the German transport sector consumes more energy than any other part of the economy and is second only to the energy industry in greenhouse gas emissions. As such, it plays a pivotal role in the clean-energy transition and the effort to mitigate climate change. Neither of these projects will succeed in the absence of significant changes in the transport sector.
To date, the transport sector has failed to contribute in absolute terms to reaching the German government’s climate and clean-energy targets. Indeed, clean-energy policies have had little impact on the transport sector: final energy consumption is on the rise; CO2 emissions have stagnated at high levels; dependency on oil is increasing; and new technologies have yet to take hold.
It is now apparent that emissions in the transport sector will decline little, if at all, over the coming years. This means that Germany is very likely to fall short of its national climate targets for 2020. And if the trend continues, Germany will be unable to honour its commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global warning to within 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels.
The transport sector has yet to join the fight against climate change
After the energy industry, the domestic transport sector is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the German economy. Between 1990 and 2016, Germany’s GHG emissions sank from around 1.251 billion metric tonnes of CO2 to 906 million metric tonnes, or around 345 million metric tonnes. During this same time frame, emissions in the transport sector rose continuously save for a short period of decline after 2000. At 166 million metric tonnes, the current level of emissions in the transport sector is 3 million metric tonnes higher than in 1990. What is more, the share of national GHG emissions produced by the transport sector has risen from about 13% in 1990 to 18% in 2016 – an increase of roughly one-third.2
This rise is mostly attributable to cars and trucks, the chief means of transporting goods and passengers in Germany today.3 Together, they are responsible for almost all CO2 emissions and air pollutants generated from road transport.4 The German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt, or UBA) estimates that in 2014 alone road transport caused 52.2 billion euros’ worth of damage to the environment when also factoring in noise pollution and land use costs.5
All the while, the volume of traffic has continued to rise. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of passenger vehicles on the road increased by 8% and the number of trucks rose by some 14%.6 The amount of air pollutants emitted into the atmosphere, while falling in absolute terms, is still harmful to human health,7 and total CO2 emissions have remained nearly constant despite the introduction of cleaner and more efficient motors. By contrast, private household emissions have declined
even as living space has increased.8 The same goes for emissions from manufacturing, which have fallen despite a boost in production output (figure 0.1).
The statistics for energy consumption also paint a picture of a transport sector out of sync with national trends. In 2015, Germany’s total energy use was around 6% less than in 1990. Improvements to industry and manufacturing during the decade after German unification were largely responsible for this drop, with households making up most of the difference in later years. By contrast, the transport sector today consumes 10% more energy than it did in 1990, 1% more than it did in 2005 and almost 2% more than it did in 2010. It is now responsible for roughly 30% of Germany’s final energy consumption (figure 0.2). These numbers are at odds with federal government targets, which call for a 10% decrease of final energy consumption by 2020 and a 40% decrease by 2050 relative to 2005 levels.9
The transport sector is not only eating up more energy than any other segment of the economy;10 it is by far Germany’s largest oil consumer.11 Indeed, oil enjoys a virtual monopoly in the transport sector, which draws 94% of the energy it consumes from oil-based fuels. Electricity contributes only negligibly to meeting energy demand for mobility, and for the past few years its level has dropped in both absolute and relative terms while increasing in every other economic sector.12
The Paris Agreement calls for the decarbonisation of transport by 2050
The continued high levels of energy consumption and CO2 emissions in the transport sector have jeopardised German hopes of meeting the energy and climate policy targets set forth by the federal government’s 2010 Energy Plan and elaborated in the 2050 Climate Action Plan. Reaching these targets will require a transformation of today’s transport sector.
The 2010 Energy Plan – Energiekonzept für eine umweltschonende, zuverlässige und bezahlbare Energieversorgung is the official German title – aims for an 80 to 95% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 over 1990 levels. This would mean reducing annual emissions to between 63 and 250 million metric tonnes of CO2 (figure 0.3).13 The 2050 Climate Action Plan, which became effective in November of 2016, speaks of the “complete elimination of greenhouse gases from the world economy” over the course of the century and calls on Germany to be “mostly greenhouse gas neutral by 2050.”14
The 2050 Climate Action Plan represents the first time the German government has defined medium- and long-term targets for the reduction of GHG emissions in the transport sector. Specifically, they envision a 40 to 42% decrease by 2030 relative to 1990 levels. By 2050, the sector is to be “nearly independent of fossil fuels and hence greenhouse gas neutral.”15
One year before the Climate Action Plan was enacted, the participants of the G7 summit in Elmau discussed the reorganisation of the transport sector away from carbon. Their closing statement spoke of the need for major cuts in global greenhouse emissions “accompanied by the decarbonisation of the global economy during this century.”16
This objective is in keeping with the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels” and to bring net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by the end of the century.17 Already it is clear that these objectives will not be achievable without introducing negative emissions.18 But they are expensive and hard to push through politically, as the dust-up over underground CO2 storage has shown. The most sensible strategy is the reduction of emissions to an unavoidable minimum.19 This includes the decarbonisation of the transport sector.
The budget approach developed by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen, or WBGU) follows the same logic. It caps global CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2050 at 750 billion metric tonnes so as to keep global warming below the 2 ºC guardrail with a high degree of probability.20 According to the WBGU, an equitable distribution of CO2 allowances among the world’s countries would leave Germany with an emissions budget of 9 billion metric tonnes of CO2, or 220 million metric tonnes per year for the remainder of the period. But annual CO2 emissions of the German transport sector already amount to some 160 million metric tonnes a year, almost three-fourths of Germany’s annual allotment. There is no reason why the transport sector should have such special status relative to the industrial and housing sectors.
Despite these challenges, the drop in oil prices and other factors have led to an increase of energy consumption and emissions in the transport sector. Official projections forecast that emission reductions will continue to fall short of targets.21 The discrepancy between objectives and reality reveal the enormous need for political action.