Europe should set binding CO2 reduction targets for trucks

What is Europe is doing to reduce truck CO2 emissions? Plenty of people are beginning to ask. The Paris Climate Agreement sharpened the question: freight will be responsible for 45% of CO2 from on-road transport in Europe by 2030.

One answer is, not as much as it easily could be doing. The European Union has already accomplished the hardest part of the work in setting CO2 emission standards, but remains reluctant to take the final step. Unfortunately, every year of delay will make it much harder to achieve those real-world reductions that are so necessary.

Europe is on the verge of formally proposing a CO2 emission / fuel consumption measurement and reporting program (similar to a labeling program) for new freight-hauling heavy trucks — in fact, the first such program in the world. (By contrast, fuel economy labels are common for passenger vehicles.) But the “labels” won’t be required until perhaps 2018, and what impact they will have is uncertain. Such a consumer information initiative could create competition between manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient trucks. But a similar labeling program for cars in Europe had little effect.

We know a lot about technologies that work cost-effectively to lower truck CO2 emissions during real-world operation. In fact, you only have to look as far as the most efficient trucks currently sold in Europe to see technologies that could be applied to the rest of the fleet. But for a host of well-documented reasons, market forces alone are not enough to drive fleet-wide adoption of these technologies, even after they’ve proven cost-effective and would become more so as manufacturers achieved greater economies of scale.

For that, we need mandatory new-vehicle efficiency standards. The EU has already developed the certification protocol, for the “labeling” program, and that was the technically hard part. The next step is to set the CO2 limits using those certified numbers. There are no other policy levers available that can deliver comparable benefits.

A recent report from Transport and Mobility Leuven, funded by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), illustrates why not. The report suggests that an “integrated approach” that specifically excludes CO2 performance standards (but does include voluntary, non-binding vehicle improvements) could deliver a 20.41% reduction in CO2 emissions from the long haul fleet in 2020. Their proposed approach has three main categories of improvement: vehicle technology, vehicle operation, and road infrastructure management, delivering 5.05%, 11.8%, and 4.39% respectively of that 20.41% long-haul CO2 reduction in 2020.

Of the measures involved in the integrated approach TML outlines, five are tied to policy in some way: (1) allowing longer and heavier trucks on the road via the proposed European Modular System; (2) road pricing (using vehicle CO2 emissions to levy tolls); (3) reducing the legal speed limit in Europe; (4) relaxing the restrictions in the Cabotage directive; and (5) mandating eco-driving as part of the training requirements for professional drivers. The report does analyze the impact of vehicle improvements, but in contrast to these five measures the analysis assumes the vehicle improvements will happen in the absence of any regulatory driver.

Further, while the TML report acknowledges that there is significant technology potential for new vehicle improvement in the short term (15%–17% in the six years from 2014 to 2020, an improvement rate of over 2% per year), the impact of that improvement is only analyzed in 2020. Therefore, the analysis only evaluates the first year of benefits of a more technically advanced new vehicle fleet. To fully analyze the benefits of a 15%–17% efficiency improvement in the new vehicle fleet from 2014 to 2020, the analysis of the fleet-wide reductions should be evaluated in the 2030 timeframe, to account for fleet turnover.

The two key determinants of CO2 savings from a mandatory performance standard are the start date of the standard and the stringency (i.e., the annual efficiency improvement required). And of the two, start date is the most critical.

The chart below shows cumulative CO2 savings in 2050 from EU heavy-duty vehicle standards under a range of starting year and stringency scenarios, calculated using the ICCT’s Transportation Roadmap Model. In order to match the benefits in 2050 of initiating standards in 2015 that mandated an annual overall improvement in fuel efficiency of new heavy-duty vehicles of 2%, a standard taking effect in 2020 would have to require double the rate of improvement—4% per year. For reference, the current U.S. heavy-duty vehicle standards require approximately 2.5% per year efficiency improvements when combining the targets of Phase 1 and (proposed) Phase 2. If a standard took effect in 2020 that required an annual improvement rate of 2%, not even implementing a new standard in 2025 at an annual rate of improvement of 4% would yield the same cumulative CO2 benefit by 2050. Again for reference, mandated eco-driving for professional drivers could deliver 0.57 gigatons of CO2 cumulatively in 2050, using the most optimistic assumptions presented in the TML report (6%–7% reduction across 100% of the fleet starting in 2015)

bar chart, HDV CO2 emission reductions

The EU is on the brink of doing something real and definitive to reduce CO2 emissions from on-road freight. It has spent many years and a significant amount of money developing an advanced protocol for certifying CO2 emissions from new trucks, which will be enshrined in a regulation this year or next. Determining CO2 emission limits is much less challenging from a technical perspective than developing the certification protocol itself. Putting a CO2 performance standard for new heavy-duty vehicles in place would change the trajectory of on-road freight emissions for years to come. No other policy alternative can rival it in effectiveness.