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Decarbonizing the German transport sector: the mobility and energy transitions

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The transport sector represents the biggest challenge for climate policy

The German government has set the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 (reference year: 1990). To achieve this requires complete decarbonization, which means largely giving up the burning of fossils. All sectors must contribute to this transition. While many sectors have seen major emissions reductions in recent years, the transport sector, which accounts for almost one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions, has shown a slight increase (see Figure 1). The major contributor to this rise is road transport due to increases in demand for transport, engine performance and vehicle weight since 1990, offsetting any improvements to efficiency over the same period.

Figure 1: GHG emissions in Germany 1990-2017

The German government’s Climate Action Plan 2050 includes the ambitious medium-term goal of a 40-42% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in transport sector by 2030. Heated political and juristic discussions are currently underway in German cities about air quality and climate change, in particular following the recent diesel scandal and after Germany and five other EU member states were sanctioned by the EU for exceeding pollution limits (NO2) on May 17th 2018.

Directive 2008/50/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on Ambient Air Quality and Clean Air for Europe sets out clear air quality objectives by 2020, including targets for improving human health and air quality via reductions in transport industry emissions. It also specifies ways of assessing results and of corrective actions to be taken if these standards are not met in the given time frame.

It should be noted, however, that climate and health protection concerns are not the only drivers of this transformation. Technological development and structural changes also have the potential to alter transport industry behavior. An innovative and sustainable transport policy is not only an environmental and climate policy imperative but also something central to the future competitiveness of our industries.

Avoid, shift and improve

“Avoid, shift and improve” is a strategy to reduce transport sector emissions (see Figure 2): avoid individual motorized transport via smart and compact cities and by strengthening intelligent and integrated mobility solutions; shift transport and travel demand from carbon-intensive to more sustainable modes like rail, public transport, cycling or walking; and hence improve efficiency and reduce total emissions.

Figure 2: Strategies to reduce emissions in the transportation sector

Triggers and drivers for the transformation

Digitalization creates new production and business models

In the coming years, technological advances and increasingly connected, autonomous platforms will transform the mobility sector. New entrants to the market will continue to provide flexible mobility with less private car ownership and more focus on the shared economy and self-driving vehicles. Digitalization will also play an important role in freight and deliveries, with efficiency increased via traffic bundling leading to a more sustainable transport sector. However, it should not be assumed that all new technologies will reduce negative traffic impacts. Rebound effects remain possible, as already evidenced in certain areas.

Climate protection and emissions reduction requires a universal change of mindset

During the Paris Climate Change Conference 2015, several countries committed to the long-term decarbonization of the transport sector. Reaching this goal requires a shift in behavior, mindsets and technological outlook. Cities, in particular, are facing significant challenges, including rising populations, increasing mobility needs, limited infrastructure, traffic jams and noise. The prevention of future health risks thus remains a mammoth task. In countries like China, where for each of the last five years about 1.3 % of the population have been able to escape poverty[1] and climb the social ladder, the biggest challenge of all may be to bring about this change in mindsets. How to convince people that a car is not a status symbol?

Big Data will shape long-term policy design and implementation

To make sound and operational policy decisions, up-to-date knowledge, reliable data and sophisticated modelling tools are key. Climate or energy policies are a prominent example, where the effectiveness of policy design depends on the quality of long-term scenario models. Thus, adequate methods and comprehensive databases allow policy makers to design well-informed and viable measures towards target achievement and increased ambition at the lowest-cost and with the highest-benefit for the stakeholders involved. In the era of Big Data the rudiments of policy design and decision-making are facing a serious challenge and a great opportunity at the same time. To keep path with the complexity of real-world developments like digitalization and Internet of Things, also governments will need to recapitulate the current state-of-the-art of policy making and explore new systematic approaches to evidence based and Big Data analytics for policy design and implementation.

The mobility transition versus the energy transition

The energy transition

An energy transition is primarily a technological phenomenon involving the research, integration and roll-out of climate-friendly drive systems and low-emissions energy production. Diverse forms of electrification provide long-term solutions: e.g. battery-powered electric vehicles; direct electricity utilization through tramway, trolley systems, catenaries; and inductive/hybrid systems such as fuel cell technology.

Electrifying aviation and shipping represents a major challenge for the future. The use of synthetic fuels and sustainable (but scarce) biofuels should be limited to those areas where direct electrification is technically and economically unfeasible. To some extent, this includes the shipping and aviation sectors, which are not currently electrifiable as fuels have a higher energy density in comparison to batteries.

The mobility transition

The mobility transition describes the change in collective and individual attitudes affecting both passenger and freight transport. The aim is to generate acceptance for new technologies and mobility concepts, modal shift and transport bundling, and to instill a sense of social responsibility in mobility behaviors. The challenge lies in the fact that the status quo – car ownership – is perceived as bringing independence, flexibility and security (see Figure 2). The new mobility must hence strive to be safer, more convenient, faster and more affordable, as transport users break with established behaviors only if they see a clear benefit in doing so. City planning will be an important factor in this paradigm shift, as digitalization allows for improved access to intermodal transport and shortened travel distances, providing clear, visible alternatives with a demonstrable positive impact on transport-based emissions.

Figure 3: Meanings of mobility for millennials in Germany

Transforming the transport: a collaborative task

The following measures are required to accelerate the transformation process:

Improve the infrastructure for alternative fuels

A reliable infrastructure that is equipped for drive technologies is the key to a successful transformation. Compliance with the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive is also required, and the new infrastructure needs to be more intelligent.

85% of charging is done at home. The EU should thus set binding charging infrastructure targets – at least for all new housing.

Sector Coupling

In the long term, electric mobility can only contribute to climate protection if it is fully powered by renewable energies. Intelligent sector coupling can provide an infrastructure that enables renewable energies to be both stored and transmitted. In Germany, we are currently working on several pilot projects to address issues of grid stability, raise the acceptance levels of storage technologies and to clarify data protection issues during charging.

Regional integration

The German transport system transformation is a communal planning and steering task that is intertwined with local geographic, socio-economic and demographic structures. While different transport and mobility concepts apply to urban and rural areas, regional integration remains essential.

Ambitious fuel economy standards to increase efficiency

European fuel economy standards are central to improving vehicle efficiency. Passenger vehicle standards have existed for some time and are an adequate instrument to even further raise efficiency improvement efforts; however, there has been a lack of regulation of heavy-duty vehicle emissions. To correct this, the European Commission proposed a low-emission mobility system in May 2018, including the first ever CO2 emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles. In 2025, average CO2 emissions for new trucks will have to be 15% lower than in 2019, increasing to 30% by 2030.

Coordinated design/cooperation

Major directives and framework conditions will be provided by the central government; however, their implementation will take place on local level. Transparent cooperation between different governmental bodies (national, federal (Bundesländer) and municipal) is thus an essential factor in the transition.

With their knowledge of local conditions, the federal states (Bundesländer) must offer support to central government in the creation of legislation and to municipal governments in its subsequent implementation. The competences of central government bodies such as the German Federal Ministry of Transport (BMVI), the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU), the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and others must therefore be aligned. Similarly, the Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan (Bundesverkehrswegeplan[4]) needs to include all possible modes of transportation (land, air and water), as well as to come up with a nationwide plan for the development of airports. The target of this plan should be to build a more efficient transportation system using an integrated spatial planning approach so that the total amount of traffic is reduced and transport-based emissions lowered, while maintaining the necessary mobility.

Sandra Retzer serves as Head of “Sustainable Mobility, Urbanisation and Energy” of GIZ in China. She is responsible for Sino-German policy dialogues and technical cooperation projects in the fields of energy, electro-mobility, low carbon transport and sustainable urbanisation.

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