Transport is one of the sectors that were hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. Can the German EU Council Presidency find a way out of the crisis and boost sustainable mobility for Europe?
Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg and Karima Delli, both Member of the European Parliament, The Greens/EFA, and William Todts, Executive Director of the Transport & Environment (T&E) NGO network in a conversation with Dr. Jens Althoff, Head of Paris Office, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung France.
Jens Althoff: Welcome everyone and thank you for joining the conversation. Karima, given the European Green Deal and this stimulus plan which are now being discussed, what role can the transition in the transport and mobility sector play in this plan, and can this crisis also be a sort of opportunity to really advance a transition in this sector?
Karima Delli: First of all, it must be said that transport is the backbone of our societies, meaning that without transport, we can’t do anything. As such, proper management of it also represents access to employment, health, education and all other services. However, it’s also one of the most polluting sectors; in Europe, the transport sector is responsible for 30 per cent of greenhouse gases, and it's the only sector that hasn't cut greenhouse gases since 1990. We haven't really made the climate and the connection with transport a priority. If we look at things on a global scale, transport is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases behind the production of energy and electricity. We have also seen the explosion of aviation in recent years. Today, air pollution today causes 80,000 premature deaths per year in Europe. So, that's why we need the Green Deal, and why we need to invest, and why we, the environmentalists, are putting all our efforts behind sustainable mobility. Because it’s also an issue that concerns health and climate, as well as being an immediate way of creating jobs, and it’s our desire to say that alternatives to the most polluting modes of transport should be pursued. For example, night trains, we’ll talk about them later, but they really are the alternative for trips of 600 to 1,800 kilometres. The bicycle is reappearing in cities, and it really makes it possible to avoid using your car. Then there’s rail freight, trucks on trains, rivers. There are plenty of alternatives, I think we have to really stop funding companies that are still dependent on fossil fuels. Aviation doesn’t take its share of the responsibility, especially with respect to the climate, and that’s why we support a tax on jet fuel.
Since the pandemic the European Central Bank has injected seven billion euros into fossil fuels, and that is untenable. Our imperative is very clear: we, transport, see it as a lever for action for the social objective, for a climate imperative, for a health imperative, but above all for well-being, which includes accessibility. We are fighting in European Parliament, but also with the elected representatives of the territories who do a wonderful job, to show that mobility must be inclusive and accessible to everyone. Today, we are talking about those who are in a precarious situation with regard to mobility. It’s all those who can no longer get around because transport is too expensive, or because they are not in areas served by transport. Our job is to respond concretely in the lives of these people in a way that allows them to get around in a sustainable way.
Karima you underlined that this transition should be at the heart of the European Green Deal. However, it is quite likely that we will not have as many financing possibilities as are proposed by the current stimulus plans. Anna, in this context, I would like to ask you if we now want to move forward with this at the European level, shouldn't Germany and France, the two key partners, serve as the example, and be exemplary with its own stimulus plans? There are already current stimulus plans in France and Germany, which also support the transport sector quite a bit: How do you see these recovery plans for the Franco-German partners?
Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg: The answer is going to be a little mixed. I see very positive elements, but I also see certain areas where there is talk, but it’s not yet sure if that will deliver results. Regarding the relationship between Germany and France, I prefer to talk about rowing than a tandem, because it’s not just the two of us involved. For rowing, everyone has to go in the same direction. There are also other European countries on board with us, but it’s certain that if Germany and France take another direction, it won’t work at all. We saw that in the recovery plans, at the beginning there were really the words that were expected, the rebirth of rail transport, and, gradually, plans that moved forward and various papers that we received. But there was still a little water in the wine. In the end, there are large sums, but it’s not yet very clear if infrastructure will be put in place on the borders. Quite concretely: Freiburg - Colmar, or perhaps, the north of Alsace, Karlsruhe/Rastatt - Hagenau up to Saarbrücken via the Vosges, there are very well-known and very concrete plans which could really advance rail service in Europe and between the Franco-German border, but we don't really yet know if the commitment is there.
Member states will still have a very important role in the recovery, because the amounts put forward, they will still be decided nationally, in particular, and it’s not yet certain that transport will have the place it should have. There's a lot of talk about the freight, maritime and tourism sectors, which have really been affected by the coronavirus crisis and, at the end of the day, transport, as Karima said, is really the backbone of our wealth and our European exchanges. But we’re going to have to resume these activities in a way that’s respectful of the environment, in tune with digital progress and really well thought-out. Politics will really have to decide whether it's going to be a real Green Deal, and whether it's going to be a real green stimulus plan or not. We will know more in a few months.
And William, how do you see the situation? After all, a loan of seven billion euros has been allocated to Air France already, and nine billion euros have also been allocated in Germany for Lufthansa. At the same time, there is not yet, for example, support in France for the SNCF rail system. How do you see what has been decided so far and also, in this context, can we really use this moment and this investment to advance the transition?
William Todts: First, I completely agree with what was said by Karima and Anna. I would add that transportation is the biggest problem we have, but there’s also a huge opportunity. I started 10 years ago and at that time people thought a clean car was the Toyota Prius or the diesel car but fortunately a lot has changed since then. The rise of electric cars, hydrogen for planes and ships, and the tremendous energy that we see today in all European cities, give me a lot of hope. If we look at the European plan, think there’s a very big battle, especially in France, Italy and Spain, to make sure that these three countries, the big ones, present serious and green plans. If I compare the German plan with the French plan, the German plan is stronger in my opinion. It’s much larger and in this plan there’s really a choice for the future of automobiles, the choice not to finance, to subsidize petrol and diesel cars. It’s really a very important step, and it’s a very important decision for a government that’s not part of the green movement. And in France, there are nice words, there’s the decision to give big subsidies for electric cars but, at the same time for petrol and diesel cars too. So, the German plan is more convincing.
In the airline industry, there are two possibilities to take a look at what’s been decided. On one hand, it’s obviously clear that, for Air France, Lufthansa and Brussels Airlines, they were hit hard by this crisis and, not only are they companies that pollute, they are also large employers. So, the state has a certain responsibility. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to accept that a company like Air France or Lufthansa receives billions of euros without environmental conditions. The train is part of the solution, but not the sole solution. If we want to decarbonize aviation, we have to do it and we have two options, either we stop flying, or we have to find a solution to decarbonize either planes or fuels. In this regard, I'm very happy to see that in the German and European hydrogen plan, there is an element of obligations for synthetic fuels. I also see this element in the Austrian plan and I also think that, in France, there are reflections on this subject. It’s not an ideal solution, it’s very expensive, it’s not easy, it’s not efficient, but, right now, it’s the only technological solution that we have, so it must be pursued.
Karima, same question for you, how do you see the recovery plan? Because the French Government, in terms of communication, often says that it now wants to move in a green direction, and also use stimulus plans and everything that was decided to support the economy in France to advance an ecological transition, so that would be a question. And second: How do you see the consequences of the coronavirus so far? In terms of the use of different means of transport, for example, we still see an impressive increase in France in the use of bicycles. On the other hand, of course, there is a big drop in the use of public transport because people are afraid. So, how do you see the economic support that has been decided thus far in France?
Karima Delli: So, for the first question, it’s true that we must immediately help workers who, like us all, can do nothing against the coronavirus and creates a shock to society. But concerning the environmental shock, there are things we can do. The Austrians, for example, have forced their airlines to comply with their laws on, in particular, global warming, with very restrictive objectives: for example, all flights that are a minimum of two and a half hours and which can be replaced by the train, should be replaced by train. It’s in words, now it must be put into practice.
The coronavirus has shown a collective awareness of aviation pollution since airplanes have largely stopped flying, and it’s also thanks to the work of environmentalists. This collective awareness makes people say, ‘well, we won't necessarily take the plane anymore’. And then it’s absolutely necessary to consider the employees of the aviation sector who will also have to be retrained. The future is train transport. Now, in the automotive sector, Renault's plan is a disaster. Two things: the first thing is that Renault has its subcontractors in countries that are low market, i.e., Turkey and Morocco, which is a scandal. The second thing is that we are not seeing any future plan. As environmentalists, we’re proposing a real forward-looking policy in the automotive industry: in the car of tomorrow, everything must be recycled, we don't need to build more cars. We have to take cars as they are, using fossil fuels, and adapt them to the electric technology, what we call retrofitting. Second focus: everything has to be recycled, the materials, the steel found on the other end of the world. As with the circular economy, we have everything we need to do it right. France must not stay in its own corner, on the scale of an industrial policy; it must reach out to its German partner and energise a new industrial policy in the automobile sector, it’s win-win. You also have to tell the car manufacturers ‘behaviours will change you have to render service’.
Let's go back to your second question: with the end of the lockdown the cycling plans of cities exploded almost everywhere. But one doesn’t make a cycling policy just by making bikes available: it’s the whole economy of cycling, it’s infrastructure, it’s bike paths, it’s creating bike garages. We value intermodal transport, which includes being able to put bikes on trains. There is a whole local economy behind cycling. The second thing is that public transport is the big forgotten aspect of the recovery. Today, there’s still a little fear, but it’ll be necessary to relaunch public transport, trams, buses, metros. It's good because it has a much smaller impact than when everyone takes their car. Public transport, like cycling, is the everyday mobility of people, we have to gradually wean ourselves off the car. Public transport needs to be part of the recovery plan.
I would like to address a few things that Karima said. It is often said that there are three key areas for a transition of mobility: electrification, which is very important; the digital revolution; and also the connection to smart cities, smart solutions. Anna, you are now a member of the European Parliament, but you also spent a long time with the City Council of Stuttgart, a city where the automobile was for decades at the centre of everything. What direction do you see things taking? What could we do at the moment to advance this mobility transition within these three areas?
Anna Deparnay-Grunenberg: So, first of all, I would like to chime in on what Karima said, and also William, which is very important in transportation. In fact, we have a lot of problems, but we also have a lot of solutions. We really already have a lot of places and a lot of municipalities that are trying very concrete things and that are working. We also have a lot of partners who were slowing down and who now see that what we’re proposing is the future, and they’re with us.
So, public transport in Stuttgart, we really saw that by changing the prices and also making public transport more accessible we had an increase in the number of people who took public transport. We now have on the main roads – and a few months ago it seemed impossible – new bike paths, and right in the middle of Stuttgart. People appreciate it and use the bike. I also think that we have to put the bike at the heart of the economic recovery, because why not support small companies that make, cargo bikes for example. In any event, as ecologists, we try and stick to our principle to tray and avoid transport when we can. This is also a social vision. We have now learned to work digitally.
Of course, it should not remain only digital, because we don’t all want to remain in confinement, but I think that there are business trips that can be avoided. This is something that we have to continue to recognize: there are certain things that can be done digitally and there are certain types of transport that can be avoided, while others that can be replaced. But in terms of public transport, it’s still also very important for municipalities to be supported financially, because setting up networks of trams and subways is expensive, and municipalities cannot do it everywhere themselves. Member states must put this all to the fore to rebuild confidence in public transport and to really have a network which, afterwards, connects with cars, – non-polluting, connected and shared cars of course. I'm waiting for the big automotive companies that come up with these kinds of services, which can offer digital, connectivity and new technologies by saying ‘we offer whole packages as real services’ and, of course, well-combined with rail services, well-connected with bike services, because this is the future of transport. I think that citizens and consumers are there to use services, but they also have to be offered soon.
William, how should we now move forward in these three areas, electrification, the digital revolution and also connectivity, with the European recovery plan and the recovery plans in Germany and France?
William Todts: Perhaps, first, I’d like to add something on the aviation question. I fully agree that the train, the night train, the long-distance train has a very important role to play, but it must also be clear that the majority of emissions are not caused by short-haul flights, but by long-haul flights, i.e. between Europe and the United States, between Belgium and Spain, therefore. So, the most significant of these famous ‘megatrends’ is electrification. I totally agree that, in cities, cycling and public transport are the future, and I think that the crisis we are currently experiencing is, perhaps, an accelerator. But let's be clear: the car is not going to disappear, from Europe, from the United States or from China, and climate change is a global problem, so, it’s also necessary to find a global solution. In our opinion of T&E, the electric car is this solution, and there I think that Europe has a very big role to play. T&E fought in 2013–14, for the famous ‘Cars CO2’ law. It was a great battle with Angela Merkel, but it’s thanks to this regulation, this European law, that today manufacturers are selling electric cars. We went from two to eight per cent of electric cars in 2020. This is thanks to this law, and it’s good news. This is the kind of policy we need because there’s this mythology surrounding the genius of Elon Musk who, in his small garage, created the electric car, but that's not how it was done. California, Europe and China created this market, we created the market for renewable energies, and it also shows us the path we must take, the direction for the future. This, for me, is the heart of the Green Deal, a green industrial policy.
We'll see what Ursula Von der Leyen will do. She talks about the Green Deal, and it's good that she always does so, even in times of crisis, with great passion, but the big test will be in September when the Commission presents its climate plan. We’ll see if she wants to go to 55 per cent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030. But the more important question is whether the Commission is prepared to go against the big French and German industries, notably the automobile industry. As far as digitalization is concerned, I think that the short-term environmental impact will be very limited. Of course, there are possibilities, we can create a more efficient system, but it won't be a game changer. What could be a game changer is the autonomous car. It’s not a given because an autonomous car isn’t any cleaner than a private car, but there is the possibility of creating a much more efficient system, but there are some issues: first, it has to be a clean car, and we have to limit the number of kilometres that these cars drive, because we're going to switch to a system that is dominated by platforms, like Uber. It is not for tomorrow, but in 10 to 15 years. I think that we are going to head in this direction, and if we have electric cars that are shared and are autonomous, individual mobility will become very inexpensive, and that’s a great danger. This means that we must rethink taxation today, we must move to a form of taxation based on kilometres, and this is very difficult, but we must work on it today to avoid very big problems in the future.
Thank you very much everyone.
The conversation took place on 10 June 2020.