Putting an end to European truck industry’s exemption from the low-carbon transition

White truck on a road in the polar night

The EU has long enjoyed a reputation as a global leader in climate diplomacy. This is, however, increasingly put into question, in light of revelations about the bloc’s outdated vehicle emission testing regime and the suboptimal pace in introducing CO2 legislation to tackle its ever growing road freight emissions.

Last year’s “Dieselgate” scandal shocked the world by exposing the EU’s outdated and dysfunctional vehicle emissions testing regime, which allowed for decades-long manipulations of emission testing practices by car making companies. In this article, however, we take a closer look at another key area where the EU is lagging behind its international counterparts, namely the decarbonisation of its trucks.

The EU still has no fuel economy standards for its heavy duty vehicles, while a number of countries, including the US, Canada, China and Japan have already fully enforced legislation to curb road freight emissions. In addition to undermining its industrial competitiveness, the EU’s hesitance to introduce fuel economy standards for trucks has translated into marginal innovation and the freight sector’s ever-worsening carbon footprint over the past two decades.

While trucks only make up less than 5% of the EU’s road vehicles, they are responsible for 25% of total road transport CO2 emissions. Although freight fleets are outnumbered by passenger cars, they are a major source of oil demand (i.e. trucks consume, on average, up to ten times more fuel per kilometer and travel over ten times more than passenger cars).

However, meeting the EU’s target of reducing CO2 emissions from transport by 60%, and completely eliminating the use of fossil fuels in cars by 2050, necessitates putting an end to this inaction.

What is the EU currently doing about its freight emissions?

The Commission’s short-run strategy for its freight sector focuses on the measurement and verification of CO2 emissions from newly registered trucks. In other words, the Commission has developed a computer simulation tool, VECTO, which will form the basis of the regulation it is currently drafting that will require the certification, reporting and monitoring of CO­­2­ emissions from all new heavy duty vehicles. The legislative proposal is expected to be finalised by the end of the year, and the first reporting period is envisaged to take place in 2018-2019. This means that work on the design options for EU-wide fuel economy standards for trucks will only begin as of 2020 at the earliest.

Need to go beyond mere emission measurement, to actual emission cuts

Meeting the EU’s decarbonisation objectives, as well as the 2°C target of the Paris Agreement, will require immediate efforts to deeply cut CO­2 emissions and to stimulate the uptake of zero-emission alternative fuels in transport.

While the VECTO tool is an important step in the right direction, it alone will not take us where we need to be, and definitely not quickly enough. In addition to the slow pace of its completion, the VECTO tool suffers from a number of major limitations; one of them being its limited scope, which only covers certain types of vehicle categories and excludes trailers or alternative powertrains. This reflects the Commission’s short-sighted vision which has failed to anticipate future market and technological developments.

In developing this testing tool, we need to draw lessons from the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test. In finalising VECTO, Bellona therefore calls on the Commission to ensure an independent, reliable and future proof tool.

So what is the right approach going forward?

The optimal response to decarbonising freight will be pragmatic, thus making best use of technologies and solutions available today, while also building a long-term vision and anticipating broader developments, such as electrification” comments Teodora Serafimova, Policy Adviser at Bellona Europa.

Fuel consumption savings of up to 20% can easily be achieved by applying design improvements, including improved trailers and tractors, aerodynamic drag reduction and low resistance tires. More tangible CO2 emission reductions can be achieved by introducing smart road charging on European roads, i.e. the differentiation of charging based on trucks’ fuel efficiency, which would be key in stimulating the production of cleaner, more efficient trucks.

Making freight part of the electric revolution

Last but not least, efforts need to be accelerated towards the introduction of ambitious fuel economy standards for trucks. This will provide the much needed impetus for investments in decarbonising and electrifying freight transport.

Bellona regards electrification as one of the most promising means for cutting CO2 emissions, reducing petroleum reliance and improving local air quality. While current applications of electric freight are limited, it appears this may quickly change in near future.

In fact, the truck industry appears to be waking up to this new reality. Just last summer Mercedes-Benz and Daimler Trucks launched a prototype ‘Urban eTruck’, a heavy-duty pure-battery-electric truck for urban deliveries. The truck is said to have a range of 200 kilometers, in other words the range deemed sufficient for the typical daily delivery tour. These are expected to go into production in the early 2020s.

Other major companies, including Tesla, the Mack division of Volvo Trucks and BYD, have also announced plans of developing electric heavy duty vehicles. While further improvement with regards to battery capacity and costs is needed to render e-trucks truly viable, the commitment of major freight industry actors to electrification is crucial for accelerating the large-scale deployment of the technology.

Bellona Europa

europe@bellona.org