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Thank you, Volkswagen!

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 08:55

Although the shift towards sustainable transportation seems to be painfully slow in EU strategies and initiatives, Merja Kyllönen MEP says that the revolution doesn’t have to wait for EU regulators to be pioneers

Thank you Volkswagen: if we ever thought we were on a straight path to sustainable mobility, it has now become clear that the road is bumpier than expected. The problems in monitoring and enforcement are of such a scale, that I won’t even dare to think about the real carbon footprint of transportation.

A European Environment Agency (EEA) report published in November 2015 estimates that air pollution is responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths in Europe. Urban air quality is greatly affected by road-traffic emissions which come from a number of sources. Emissions consist of exhaust pipe emissions as well as friction processes and resuspended road dust which is especially a significant spring-time problem in Sweden and in Finland.

Air pollution caused by road traffic is a complex mixture of particles and gaseous pollutants, all of which cause health effects. The main pollutants are nitrogen oxides (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide), carbon monoxide (CO) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). In addition road transport is responsible for about 20% of the EU’s total emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Thus it is clear, that air pollution harms both human health and the environment.

Another factor to this complex air quality issue was added in September 2015 when the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Notice of Violation of the pollution rules applicable to Volkswagen and Audi. This came after a non-governmental organisation, International Council on Clean Transportation, ICCT, carried out a study on the nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions of diesel vehicles.

The Notice of Violation alleges that four-cylinder Volkswagen and Audi diesel cars from model years 2009-2015 include software that circumvents EPA emissions standards for certain air pollutants. This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation emit nitrogen oxides up to 40 times the standard.

Up to 40 times! And it was only thanks to an NGO that this came up!

Events in the USA lead the European Parliament to establish a Committee of Inquiry in January 2016, that will investigate the alleged contraventions and maladministration in the application of EU law in relation to emission measurements in the automotive sector.

Comprehensive measures needed

“In technology we trust.” This seems to be unanimous religion of European regulators when it comes to measures for reducing the harmful environmental impact of transport.

The current scandal on automotive industry shows that 97% of diesel cars on European market are actually emitting much more NOX than the official limit. This and many other cases have revealed problems in monitoring and enforcement.

I won’t even dare to think about the real carbon footprint of transportation. The decision makers in different institutions find it much easier to invent limits for manufacturers than introduce measures that would have a direct effect on people and their behaviour: fostering the use of public transportation, walking and cycling, introducing the low-emission zones with traffic restrictions or setting price elements based on the environmental externalities of mobility. Is it because we politicians don’t want to tell our voters what to do?

While advances in renewable power generation and propulsion technology will deliver significant progress, this will not suffice. I would really like to see more comprehensive and holistic policy and measures. It cannot be the technology alone.

On the contrary, we will need brave visions and straight-forward steps on every single field: improved spatial planning highly relying on the use of public transportation, better information services for travel planning and comparison, and incentives towards more responsible choices.

Also persistent work to introduce new environmentally-friendly energy sources and strong effort to foster the electrification of transport are still needed.

Decarbonisation it is

We have been fighting the constant growth of CO2 emissions since early 1990s, yet the CO2 emissions from transportation are still growing in Europe. Since 1990 CO2 emissions from transport has grown by 29% in OECD countries and by 89% in non-OECD countries.

The European Commission is now preparing its communication on decarbonising the transport sector. It is something I look forward to with excitement but also with trepidation. I really hope that the Commission’s attitude is ambitious enough.

The “Project Europe” has recently been sailing from crisis to crisis and this has done harm to the decision-making ability of European institutions. There are some indications that the College of Commissioners lead by Jean-Claude Juncker is becoming more and more careful: the Commission tries to safeguard that their proposals will be adopted and all troublesome measures and objects of possible political resistance are highly avoided.

This might be a politically risk-free way forward but it is not the way to transform Europe’s transport system to a new, zero-carbon era or to protect ourselves from ever increasing pollution from transportation. It certainly isn’t the way to save our planet.

Revolution can start from grass root level

Although the shift towards greener and more sustainable transportation seems to painfully slow in EU strategies and initiatives, it is worth remembering that the revolution doesn’t have to wait for EU regulators to be pioneers.

There is a human being in every single car.

Lots can be done on individual, municipal and regional level, just by re-thinking our own choices as individuals, as members of households and as residents.

It’s good that our eyes have finally been opened – thanks to Volkswagen. While urban mobility is a massive contributor to CO2 emissions and also a producer of a huge amount of nitrogen oxides and harmful particles, it’s also a field where these questions are easiest to solve by promoting the attractiveness of public transport and by improving the conditions for walking and cycling.

It is also worth noting that smart and sustainable mobility is definitely not of interest only to the big cities or metropolises in Europe. Instead, in many cases, it is precisely the smaller cities and towns which have the privilege of shorter distances and thus can easily promote sustainable solutions based on local conditions.