Road lobby: EU emissions cuts may backfire

Road lobby: EU emissions cuts may backfire

The European Commission estimates that road transport emissions in Europe have risen steadily over the past 25 years to more than 20 percent of the continent’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit:

The European Union’s drive to radically slash vehicle emissions has drawn a strong reaction from the road haulage industry, which believes the measures may ultimately increase road congestion and push up trucking costs.

Concerns have also been raised over whether technology will even be available to allow manufacturers to meet tough new carbon dioxide (CO2) emission reduction targets set recently by the European Parliament. Supporters of the targets, meanwhile, say they do not go far enough, pointing to European Commission (EC) estimates that road transport emissions in Europe have risen steadily over the past 25 years to more than 20 percent of the continent’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly on April 17 to approve a legislative proposal that sets the first ever EU-wide CO2 emissions performance standards for heavy-duty vehicles. The text of the regulation now goes to the European Council for formal approval, after which the law will be imposed and the standards monitored and enforced.

Under the proposal, the average CO2 emissions of trucks sold in 2025 and heavier than 7.5 metric tons must be 15 percent lower than 2019 levels, a mandatory target that the EC said can be achieved using technologies that are already available on the market.

Aspirational targets

Emissions from heavy trucks sold in 2030 will need to be at least 30 percent lower than 2019 levels, but this goal will be reviewed again in 2022 to account for new technologies needed to meet the target. In 2022, the scope will be extended to include other vehicle types such as smaller lorries, buses, coaches, and trailers.

Matthias Maedge, general delegate to the European Union (EU) for the International Road Transport Union (IRU), argues that the targets imply a heavy reliance on electrification, which he says is not a viable solution for long-haul trucking.

“It is not clear how the 30 percent reduction target will be met and what technology will be available,” Maedge told “Combustion technology will remain the technology of choice for decades to come for long-haul trucks over longer distances and heavier loads. The reality is that there are no alternatives.”

Maedge said forcing operators to adopt electric-powered rigs risked having the opposite effect to that intended by the regulation.

“It would push operators to switch to smaller and less efficient vehicles that will ultimately increase congestion and CO2 emissions. The vehicles will add to operator costs and increase rates for customers,” he said.

The European Shippers’ Council welcomed the new emissions targets but also cautioned that the ability of transport to actually meet the criteria should be closely monitored throughout enforcement.

The shippers’ group said in a statement the standards being imposed should not be allowed to hamper the renewal of trucking fleets, for example, and in the delivery of new targets post-2030, the EC should ensure the required technology was available at that time.

But there are strong supporters of the European drive to drastically cut CO2 emissions, including Transport & Environment (T&E), a Brussels-based nonprofit organization focusing on the health impact of transportation across all modes.

In its reaction to the new rules, T&E pointed out that trucks in Europe account for 22 percent of road transport emissions, despite making up just 2 percent of vehicles on the road. The EC expects the activity from heavy-duty commercial vehicles to jump by more than 50 percent in the period 2010-2050.

“This law is a pivotal moment for the truck industry in Europe,” said Stef Cornelis, cleaner trucks manager at T&E. “After 20 years of very little progress in fuel efficiency, and the biggest cartel fines in the industry history [EU truck manufacturers in 2016 were fined $3.3 billion for anti-competitive behavior], truck makers have to cut emissions by almost a third over a decade and start supplying zero emission trucks. But this is just the beginning and the rules will need to be made a lot more ambitious when they are reviewed in 2022.”

Incentivizing the industry

T&E group urged European truck makers to start supplying cleaner trucks now, instead of waiting until the last minute, focusing on zero-emissions technology, such as battery-electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. Any climate emission savings from fossil fuels would be modest and would not offer a workable path to zero emissions.

The IRU’s Maedge disagreed, pointing to a “range and payload issues with heavy-duty vehicles” that don’t need to be taken into account with electrification of smaller, lighter vehicles. He also noted that heavy duty trucks have “ordering times of up to seven years, so operators would have to invest in such vehicles very soon to be able to even meet the objectives by 2030,” an obligation that would place a heavy cost burden on motor carriers.

As part of its emissions cutting efforts, the EC is providing an incentive system of “super credits” for vehicle manufacturers that invest in innovative technologies, while preserving the environmental integrity of the CO2 targets. But Maedge said there remained a lack of incentives for truck operators to actually purchase those new, more technologically advanced trucks.

In its legislative proposal, the EC said, “Today, about 98 percent of our lorries rely on diesel. There are virtually no large zero-emission lorries on European roads, and few zero-emission buses in cities. At the same time, almost all manufacturers have announced plans for zero-emission vehicles. The commission proposes to support these technologies and foster innovation through an incentive system.”

The same discussion over the viability and cost of environmentally friendly trucks is going on in the United Kingdom, where tough emission targets have also been proposed. The UK National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), a body appointed by the Treasury, says it wants a ban on the sale of diesel and petrol heavy-duty vehicles by 2040.

“The commission’s central finding is that without action, freight’s contribution towards congestion and carbon emissions will remain problematic,” the NIC said in an April 17 report. “Acceleration of technological advancements and clear, firm, long-term targets will be key to tackling this. A more coordinated approach within and between different tiers of government, based on better data, will be crucial to getting this right.”

The UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) said there currently are no credible, cost-effective alternative fuels for long-haul heavy-duty trucks, arguing the NIC report made assumptions about technologies and infrastructure that haven’t yet materialized.

“New technology is welcome but it needs to be practical and affordable,” said RHA chief executive Richard Burnett. “A premature switch to zero-emissions lorries would disproportionately impact small freight operators.”

The need to cut CO2 emissions comes at a difficult time for a European road freight industry that is struggling to handle explosive growth in the rapid last-mile delivery services required for e-commerce. According to Nordic package delivery company PostNord, online purchases in Europe in 2018 rose by almost 10 percent year over year, with orders made by 268 million consumers.

Maedge said Europe will need more transportation to cope with the rising demand, and that would collide with aggressive emission reduction targets that depend on reducing the number of vehicles on the road.

“That will drive up the price of products and make them less available. We are living in a world of just-in-time and e-commerce, where there is less warehousing needed, and we are confronted with the need to do more transport,” he said.

Contact Greg Knowler at and follow him on Twitter: @greg_knowler.