Transforming transport requires decarbonisation and sustainable mobility.

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Energy is a limited resource. This is no less true of renewable energy than it is of fossil fuels. There are technological limitations to the amount of energy that can be obtained from sunlight, wind, biomass and hydropower. But even if this weren’t the case, a massive expansion of renewables would bring undesirable consequences for people and the environment.

Although support for energy generation from renewable sources is generally high, public support still poses problems. Renewable power stations, wind turbines in particular, are not welcome everywhere,22 and as their numbers grow, so too will resistance.23 Hence, carbon-neutral energy must be used as efficiently as fossil fuels. Using renewables efficiently also keeps down its generation costs.

The fact that the amount of renewable energy will be limited for the foreseeable future has consequences for the transformation of the transport sector. It means that replacing combustion engines with electric motors is not enough. Lowering energy usage and covering the remaining demand with carbon-neutral energy will be essential. Hence, the transport transformation necessarily rests on two pillars: the “mobility transition” and the “energy transition in transport” (figure 1.1).



The first pillar, the mobility transition (known in German as the Mobilitätswende), is about changing how people get around. Its goal is efficiency – decreasing final energy consumption in the transport sector without restricting individual mobility. Advancements in technology have increased mobility options and made multimodal travel – the use of multiple types of transport for a single trip – easier. Energy policies and general societal trends will make it possible to activate hitherto unrealised potentials to reduce, reorganise and improve transport.

The second pillar, the “energy transition in transport” (Energiewende im Verkehr) is primarily a technological challenge. Specifically, how can we meet the power demands of transport using efficient, carbon-neutral energy? Tackling this problem will require the right kinds of policies and political support.


22. See Tagesspiegel (2016).
23. At the end of 2016, there were 28,217 wind turbines in Germany. These were responsible for 11.9% of Germany’s gross electricity production. See BWE (2017) and AGEB (2016b).

  • The mobility transition allows the same mobility with fewer kilometres travelled

    People want to be mobile because they cannot meet all their needs in one place. But mobility is not the same thing as transport, which is merely a means of overcoming distance. Mobility can be associated with long or short journeys; it can require much effort or little; it can take a high toll on the environment or a small one. The number of kilometres travelled is not the key measure of mobility.24

    Over the past few decades, housing construction trends have increased the amount of traffic on the road.25 At the same time, private vehicles have become the dominant means of transportation amid a greater emphasis on individuality.26 The resulting traffic trends have proven hard to change, and many attempts to curb congestion and promote environmentally friendly transportation have been unsuccessful.

    Changes are on the horizon, however. For the past ten years, there have been signs of a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes towards cars. More and more, urban populations in North America, Europe and parts of Asia see driving as burdensome rather than pleasurable. People are looking for – and finding – alternatives to private vehicles.

    Digitalisation and communication technologies have helped make this shift possible. (Insight 5 has more to say about them.) Emerging travel behaviour patterns require less transportation and rely on multiple,linked modes of travel. These new behaviour patterns often rely on innovative smartphone apps that allow users to switch seamlessly between modes of transport. The benefits are obvious. Substituting private vehicles for trains, for example, saves people from having to find a parking spot. And carsharing allows people to choose the vehicle they need on any given day, be it a cabriolet or a transporter. With new forms of behaviour now possible, people’s habits will continue to change, and mobility’s harmful environmental effects will diminish.

    Transforming mobility is less about decreasing movement than changing its quality: planning routes more efficiently; combining environmentally friendly transportation options; reducing traffic. A new, multimodal mobility system like this will improve the way people and goods move around while helping to mitigate climate change.

    Such a system requires the right regulatory framework. Fortunately, new technologies give policymakers the ability to align the transport sector with climate goals more effectively than ever before. They can promote new mobility services by deploying fiscal and regulatory instruments in various ways, e.g. to improve the management of public parking.

    To be sure, resolute political measures will be needed to tap the enormous potential of this transformation. Studies have estimated that a new mobility system can reduce energy consumption in Germany’s transport sector by some 25% by 2050. With the decline already expected from efficiency measures,27 the transport sector could see energy use fall more than half of what it was in 2005.28 This outcome would significantly exceed the long-term targets defined in Germany’s 2010 Energy Plan – and keep the volume of carbon-neutral energy needed for the transport sector to a minimum. Remember: saving energy means having to generate less of it.


    24. Becker, U. (2016), p. 17.
    25. Research has shown that these trends are hard to reverse. See SRU (2005), p. 135.
    26. See Knie, A. (2016), p. 43
    27. See Ifeu, INFRAS, LBST (2016), p. 153 ff. and p. 189.
    28. See Ifeu, INFRAS, LBST (2016), p. 189

  • Clean-energy transition, climate-neutral transport

    Unlike the mobility transition, the energy transition in transport is for the most part a question of technology. But it, too, requires political support. Carbon-neutral transport requires carbon-neutral energy. And such energy, which in Germany comes mostly from sunlight and wind, is available only in limited quantities, and this will remain so for the foreseeable future. However, the Paris Agreement requires Germany and the other signatories to decarbonise their economies. This means for the time being that all sectors – industry, private households, the transport sector and so on – compete for the same limited quantity of carbon-free electricity. If they cannibalise themselves in the process, the net effect on emissions will be zero. A clean-energy transition in the transport sector thus requires an additional influx of carbon-neutral energy.

    Electricity is the easiest way to inject more carbon-neutral energy into the economy, and it will play an important role in powering the vehicles of the future. There are two reasons why. First, there’s still much room for Germany to increase electricity from solar and wind power, the country’s most important sources of carbon-neutral energy. Second, electricity can serve as a direct power source for motor vehicles. Additionally that electricity can also be converted into zero-emissions fuels such as hydrogen. The problem with converting electricity, however, is that the process itself requires energy. The more conversion, the less solar and wind power available as final energy. And because the conversion process is technically demanding, it increases the cost of supplying energy. This means that the most efficient way to use electricity is in direct form.

    To sum it up, the issues involved in transforming the transport sector are intertwined:

    • The more efficient mobility becomes, the less renewable energy will be needed in the transport sector.
    • The more renewables are converted into fuel, the more wind and solar energy is needed to achieve the same number of kilometres travelled.
    • The more wind and solar power stations required for the transport sector, the greater the environmental impact of the energy transition in transport – and, possibly, the greater the public resistance.

    Therefore, the best option for the energy transition in transport is to use electricity directly in the form of battery-powered cars and overhead lines for buses, trains and trucks. Though, in view of the many uncertainties involved with introducing these technologies, alternatives should not be ruled out today. Regulation must be informed by technological openness.

  • Elaborating a political framework for transport transformation by 2030

    Of course, the primarily task of policymakers is not to determine which technologies to use. That’s the job of supply and demand. But government policies can provide a regulatory framework that promotes a carbon-neutral transport sector – e.g. by instituting CO2 standards for vehicles. It is important that policymakers identify short- and medium-term goals for meeting the obligations of international climate treaties, and define a clear path for getting there. Technological advances alone – electric vehicles, digital innovations, etc. – will not reduce CO2 emissions.29

    Experience tells us that transforming the traffic sector will require fundamental changes to the regulatory framework at the German and European levels. Future infrastructure investments must be targeted to reduce emissions, and the state must send targeted signals to transportation users that steer their behaviour in the right direction. Decision-makers have at their disposal various instruments for this purpose: levies, surcharges, restrictions and standards based on the polluter-pays principle, and funding programs based on the burden-­sharing principle. What does not work is to rule out incentives, declare standards unacceptable or give priority to balanced budgets. This will hogtie government action.

    In the mid-2016, the EU Commission set the agenda for low-emission mobility.30 But many member states, including Germany, show few signs of the sought-after changes. For instance, Germany’s 2030 Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan contributes virtually nothing to the reduction of emissions. (Insight 10 will have more to say about this.) Likewise, Germany’s policies are plagued by inconsistencies: promoting the purchase of electric vehicles while cutting taxes on diesel and introducing a company-car tax that favours frequent trips and offers no incentives for the use of low-emission cars. This makes for more motor output – and more CO2 emissions.31 The lack of a general speed limit on the autobahn only adds to the problem.

    The best studies available today argue for the electrification of the transport sector. This will require an integrated, electricity-based mobility system encompassing various modes of transport; the low-carbon generation of electricity, hydrogen and power-based fuels; and the identification of sustainable transport principles. By 2030, 20% of all road vehicles – 100 million cars alone – must be electricity-powered.32 It is unlikely that the federal government’s goal of putting six million electric cars on the road by 2030 will suffice to meet Germany’s emission reduction targets in the transport sector.

    The transport transformation is a long-term task that spans multiple areas of the economy. Such a task requires cohesive policies.33 Policymakers at various levels of government, from the EU level to local municipalities, must coordinate their activities. If they neutralise or even hinder each other, the transformation won’t be possible. The same goes for various sectoral policy areas; they too must be harmonised for it to work. Germany could send an important signal if government officials were to agree soon on a general strategy for transforming the transport sector. A smart strategy would define vital structural cornerstones, policy instruments, reforms and targets. A crucial goal is to reduce emissions in the transport sector by 40 to 42% by 2030, a target that has been embraced by the federal government.

    A general strategy is all the more important insofar as transforming the transport sector is not just about traffic and the environment. It’s also about German industry, jobs, economic vitality and public health. Indicators such as the market share of electric vehicles show that some countries have already made great strides in restructuring their respective transportation systems for the sake of reducing air pollution, limiting dependency on oil imports and securing an advantage on future markets.34 Germany has yet to be among the pioneers (figure 1.2).

    The longer Germany hesitates while other countries push ahead, the more it will fall behind and the less time it will have to prepare for unavoidable structural changes. And without a transformation of the transport sector, Germany stands to lose its attractiveness as a site for industrial production.

    Upon closer scrutiny, the transformation also represents a highly complex social challenge. For it demands that millions of people change routine behaviours and quit habits that have assumed a ritual-like character. This is a fundamental difference between the transport transformation and the energy transition. As a bipartisan policy since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the German energy transition has mostly focused on changing electricity production, but it has not altered the product itself. Even as the share of solar and wind power grows, outlets still deliver electricity at 220 V and 50 hertz. By contrast, the transport transformation crucially depends on voluntary behavioural changes. Accordingly, the need for change must be communicated in a compelling way, and time must be given for the adoption of new habits. Judging from past experience, such processes tend to take decades, not years. This is also why immediate action is needed.

    29. See OECD, ITF (2017), p. 14.
    30. See EU COM (2016a).
    31. See Destatis (2016c). According to the Federal Statistical Office, the increase of the average motor output of newly certified vehicles in 2015 compared with that of those in 2008.
    32. See UNFCCC (2016b).
    33. The federal government has stressed that the cohesiveness of policies promoting sustainable development must be improved. See Bundesregierung (2016a), p. 43.
    34. See, for instance, IEA (2016a).

  • The transport transformation will succeed only with international cooperation

    The transformation of the transport sector will require new cooperative impetus at the international level, especially in Europe. For one thing, transportation doesn’t stop at Europe’s borders, and for another, transport emissions are not regulated by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. The EU’s strategy for low-emission mobility creates a framework for future development and for specific vehicle, fuel and technology standards using a variety of directives, both planned and already in effect.35
    The greater the EU’s level of ambition, the fewer regulations must be passed at the national level for a successful transformation of the transport sector. Moreover, when countries attempt to go it alone, they tend to be met with resistance from national interest groups, and their policies are suspected of being incompatible with the EU domestic market – another reason to prioritise a coordinated Europe-wide approach.

    Today, the transformation of the transport sector has grown beyond Europe’s borders, with China and California leading the way. Their experiences can be valuable for current discussions in Europe. By the same token, progress in Germany in transforming the transport sector could trigger developments elsewhere. There is a precedent for assuming this: Without the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), for example, which encouraged technological advancements, wind and solar energy would be unaffordable for many poorer countries. China and California have triggered similar effects for battery costs, to the benefit of Germany and Europe. In the future, the transport transformation will also help poor countries introduce climate friendly transportation – and, in the process, promote international justice. That today’s providers can also profit from the spread of new transport technologies to international markets is a welcome added effect.

    International cooperation is needed for another reason. The digitalisation of the transport sector and electrify-based powertrain technologies will only be possible if imports of certain raw materials (lithium, cobalt) or of carbon-neutral electricity-based fuels increase on a massive scale. In principle, the market balances supply and demand. To avoid shortages or monopolies, international cooperation is urgently needed, especially during market ramp-ups of new transport technologies. Such cooperation creates the basis for the creation of extraction and processing capacities in manufacturing countries and ensures that demand peaks do not drive up prices, and thus slow the transformation. Either way, a strategy is needed for cooperation despite competition to ensure energy supply security and the availability of resources required for the transport transformation. The necessity of cooperation makes the transport transformation a key element in international security and peace efforts.

    35. See EU COM (2016a).

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