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The transport sector is undergoing a time of great changes. The traditional concept of mobility has been upset, on the one hand, by the exponential growth of the global trade in goods and, on the other, by the growing number of people moving to and within urban areas. The sustainable transition is one of the main challenges facing this sector in the coming decades. Transport accounts for almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise.
Over recent decades, emissions from the EU transport sector have not been decreasing in line with other sectors, and certainly not enough to limit its environmental and climate impacts. Therefore, reducing transport pressures on the environment and climate is key to achieving the EU’s long-term vision of zero net emissions by 2050. At the same time, work is needed to be carried out on the resilience and recovery of the transport industry, starting with the security of supply chains, interrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. Digital transformation can profitably contribute to both sustainability targets and the technological innovation of mobility and transport. Both goals, however, require a considerable amount of investment and a broad spectrum of integrated policy measures.
From the end of the economic crisis until the beginning of 2020, the European transport sector experienced a marked growth. The demand for goods and passenger flows increased significantly. This trend was then abruptly interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic; however, this crisis can become an opportunity to revolutionise the sector, making it more fit to face future challenges. Once the pandemic is over, the European transport sector cannot return to the same point interrupted at the beginning of 2020. Mobility in Europe must use this moment to accelerate the sustainable transition, keeping in mind that changes in the transport sector are usually picked up more slowly than in other sectors. We must make a move now to meet the European emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050.
In order to improve the sustainability, security, efficiency, reliability and comfort of transport, a wide set of measures is required. The decarbonisation of transport and the achievement of environmental objectives is a long process, not achievable in the short time, and calls for several hundreds of billions in investments. Here, the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy provides an important policy direction, as well, the Connecting Europe Facility and Recovery and Resilience Facility are key EU funding tools.
Furthermore, for this mode of transport to spread effectively, a single European transport area without barriers and restrictions needs to be created. This is particularly true for the railways, which represent a large part of the flows, however, it is also valid for air transport, road transport, indeed, for all modes. Many European states maintain regulatory constraints that prevent access to foreign operators in the sector, hindering the development of rail passenger and goods transport in the Union. If the rail market in the EU does not work well, then it cannot be seen as a real alternative to other modes of circulation. On the contrary, efficiency can be increased and transport emissions reduced by breaking down the barriers that divide internal systems and markets within the EU. Freedom of movement of goods and people is also one of the fundamental freedoms of the common European project.
Digitisation and smart solutions can be an important resource for improving transport sustainability and safety. Transport safety is and must also be one of the main objectives of the European institutions in the future, setting the goal of bringing the number of fatalities close to zero. The European Union has played a leading role in innovation in the transport sector in recent decades, and in order to maintain this leadership, incentives for investments and research in new digital solutions related to mobility are highly important. Digitisation is a fundamental transformation driver for mobility systems as well as the spreading of Cooperative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS). Functions with high added value and tasks with a low rate of innovation coexist in the transport and mobility chain. We need to fuel competition to drive innovation while maintaining a high level of ambition.
Another key issue is that of infrastructures both for connection and support for new types of mobility. For example, electric charging stations are fundamental for spreading the uptake of fully electric vehicles, as well as facilities for hydrogen and alternative fuels. In this area, we need to accelerate. The risk of not meeting the charging infrastructure targets for electric vehicles is high. Modal switch infrastructures and smart solutions are also very important to encourage the use of public transport and light mobility within urban areas. Furthermore, it would be appropriate to support the spread of measures (such as cold ironing and, in this case too, multimodality) aimed at making port infrastructures more sustainable and reducing emissions from ships in port, which have a significant environmental impact. At the same time, social objectives must be achieved and a significant demand for low-cost transport must be met.
Transport is also an industry of important proportions, with a substantial economic and productive impact. In the European Union, it reaches high levels of technology and manufacturing. The pandemic has tested the resilience of the system by disrupting supply chains. Therefore, as we have learnt from this great lesson, the functioning of supply chains even in the most difficult conditions need to be ensured. On the other hand, internalising supply chains would be a factor damaging to the competitiveness of European companies. Consequently, we must support initiatives aimed at shortening value chains, giving rise to European production chains. In this context, the automotive sector is a privileged sector in which to strengthen European strategic autonomy, starting with the development of integrated supply chains for electric batteries and the nascent hydrogen industry, as well as Cooperative, Connected and Automated Mobility (CCAM).
Written by: Federico Lioy