Europe has the chance to revolutionise how people and goods move and help cap global warming, while creating jobs and improving health.
While attention was focused on the pandemic, and on the economic and social inequalities it exposed and exacerbated, governments propped up European airlines with massive bailouts. In just a few months, they gave €30 billion to airlines—roughly the same amount the European Union took seven years to spend in support of the European railway system.
Air travel—the most polluting means of transport—has been the fastest growing source of transport emissions in the EU since 1990, and forecasts made before the Covid-19 outbreak indicated air travel would double globally in the next 16 years. Despite their known pollution, however, airlines were given a lifeline, using taxpayers’ money, with the consent of the European Commission. And there were no strings attached, leaving them free to continue their polluting practices and to penalise workers for the coronavirus crisis: since its outset, several European airlines have announced they will cut more than 50,000 aviation-related jobs in all.
Accounting for more than one quarter of EU emissions, the transport sector heavily contributes to climate-related disasters worldwide, such as heatwaves, fires, droughts and floods. While most sources of greenhouse-gas emissions have been decelerating or dropping in the EU, emissions from transport have continued to climb. Transport-related emissions were 28 per cent greater in 2017 than in 1990 and transport alone was responsible for 27 per cent of EU emissions in the former year.
Although the Covid-19 lockdown was associated with an unprecedented dip in greenhouse-gas emissions from transport, the injections of extra funds, at the expense of climate action, are likely to ramp up a return to the pre-pandemic emissions trajectory. Going ‘back to normal’ is however not an option, because that ‘normal’ was what led us into the climate emergency. We need to learn from the current situation and transform European transport, to make it greener and more accessible to all.
First, we need to adopt a green transport ‘roadmap’. Greenpeace recently published research outlining a pathway to decarbonising transport in the EU by 2040.
Combining a shift from planes, trucks and cars to trains, bikes, barges and public transport with a good reduction in personal travel and freight can cut transport emissions by half. New technology and switching to lighter, smaller and renewable-powered electric vehicles can make up the rest. With cars accounting for 45 per cent of transport emissions, it is time to give up vehicles running on fossil fuels, cut the number of cars significantly and offer more and more sustainable mobility options across Europe. Train travel needs to replace short-haul flights and the amount of long-haul flights needs to come down.
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Public money should pay for public goods—those that are non-rival and non-exclusive—and investments should be channelled into sustainable transport, to make communities more liveable and user-friendly. The €30 billion used to keep the aviation industry temporarily afloat would have been enough to purchase around 20,000 new electric buses and 360 night trains and build 95,000 kilometres of cycling paths across Europe.
Yet public transport has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis and is on the brink of collapse. Too little money has been furnished to support the public-transport and rail companies and develop better infrastructure. Meanwhile, citizens have seen the benefits of cycle lanes and car-free zones, and are aware that air pollution exacerbates the health impacts of Covid-19 and similar viruses.
The EU must make local authorities’ access to its funds conditional on efforts to cut traffic and make urban and rural areas more liveable. Both the EU and national governments should increase such funds, rather than fuel the spiralling climate crisis by supporting airport and road expansion projects—such as the highway in the German Dannenröder forest or the mooted new terminal for Europe’s second biggest airport, Charles de Gaulle outside Paris.
Last but not least, funding must come with a just-transition plan. Nearly five million additional jobs could be created if United Nations Economic Commission (UNECE) countries doubled their investment in public transport. Investing in cycling creates more jobs than car manufacturing and investing in public transport and trains beats road construction in a similar way—since trains, trams and buses have to be operated and maintained.
In 2013, SNCF, the French state-owned train company, offered to recruit and train workers who had been laid off by Air France and PSA Citroën, showing that retraining workers is possible. Today we need the political will to make it happen on a much larger scale, with workers’ interests at the heart of the initiative.
The Covid-19 crisis has shown how vulnerable the current transport system is and many jobs will be lost in its most polluting sectors, such as aviation. It is time to focus on what is essential—shifting public investments from polluting companies towards workers and guaranteeing their future. Bailout funds should be invested to secure their incomes, maintain their wages and access to healthcare and guarantee their livelihoods. Europe needs to ensure the reskilling of workers with a switch to sustainable industrial activities—scaling down polluting transport sectors, in dialogue with trade unions, in a just manner.
Only a recovery plan which invests in sustainable transport solutions for all Europeans, regulates emissions and helps transport workers make a just transition to jobs with prospects will address together the looming economic crisis and the ongoing climate crisis, while assuaging current and pre-empting future public-health concerns. It’s time for European leaders to kickstart Europe’s transport revolution.