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Reduced mobility the only way to more sustainable transport?

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Brussels - By Roel Hoenders We cannot go on pretending as if we don’t know that moving ourselves around Europe causes serious environmental pressures.

It is well known that driving a car does not only affect the local air quality, but also has a global impact because of the CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change.

Moreover (increasing) mobility requires (the construction of new) infrastructure, such as roads and railways, affecting landscapes and biodiversity which cut pieces of land in two and as such disturb local nature.

But the EU is planning different types of action to seriously bring down the pressure mobility causes. A lot of work is being prepared by the different EU bodies working on policy and legislative proposals which might have a serious impact on (the price of) transportation in Europe.

EU Heads of Government call for better pricing of transport

First of all, the recent European Summit was obviously all about the required reform of the functioning of the EU Institutions. However, in the Presidency conclusions on the Reform Treaty, it is also stated that the European Council recalls the importance of an efficient and sustainable European transport system. This statement was reinforced by referring to the Commission’s intention to come forward no later than June 2008 with a model for the assessment of all external costs of the different modes of transport. Such a model would serve as a basis for the future calculations of infrastructure charges. These initiatives shall be further accompanied with an analysis of the internalisation of external costs for all modes of transport.

The principle of internalisation of external costs aims at establishing prices for the use of transport which reflect the real price, so also taking into account the environmental damage each transport mode causes. This implies that for each type of transport for instance also the construction costs (which are now often financed by subsidies), congestion costs, damage to local communities and local nature need to be incorporated in the cost price of the product.

Many examples in this field already exist such as charges for entering into city centers (eg. London), charges for using roads as foreign driver (eg. Austria). However, during the Summit of June 2007 Europe’s Heads of Government expressed their wish to create a more structured and harmonized approach in this matter.

On the long term this shall obviously lead to additional charges for the use of the most environmental unfriendly mode of transport. It is clear that this will especially affect the price of road use in comparison with rail. The question is to what extent this will affect our mobility, or actually, the price of our mobility.

Are cleaner cars also more expensive cars?

Not long after the European Summit, Europe’s environment ministers expressed their views on another file with possible huge impact for EU citizens, namely the subject of emissions of cars. In its review of the EU strategy on reducing CO2 emissions from passenger cars Council repeated the EU commitment to reduce greenhouse gases, and obviously emissions of passenger cars play an important role in achieving this goal. But, driving a car means for many citizens freedom, or more precise free movement. The free movement of persons in the EU is one of the basic freedoms and should be possible for everyone. However, it is not unlikely that cleaner cars will probably also be more expensive. Subsequently the question arises whether all EU citizens who have a car now, will still be able to have this freedom in the future.

The Council acknowledged this by stating that a thorough impact assessment that should come along with any new proposals in this field should also focus on how cleaner passenger cars can be socially equitable and sustainable.

Trading of aviation emissions end of low cost flights?

Another issue discussed during the environment council was the EU emission trading scheme in general but also the proposal for a Directive aimed to include aviation activities in the scheme for greenhouse gases.

Of course Council mentioned that such an inclusion should not adversely affect the competitiveness of the EU aviation sector. Hopefully this also means that EU citizens do not have to pay more for their tickets. The liberalisation of the sector over the past years resulted in the expansive growth of low cost companies making flights available for everyone. But again, we cannot ignore that flying does affect the environment negatively so something needs to be done. Nevertheless it seems almost logically that making flyer more environmental friendly automatically leads to increased costs. So the question is how to come to a compromise in this matter in an era characterized by city trips and flights for € 1,-. Moreover, would making flying more environmental friendly also imply that it becomes a privilege and luxury for a selected crowd again?

Do EU competition rules really safeguard all consumers?

If it’s not new environmental legislation, than it might as well be EU competition rules which limit the expansion of low cost airlines.

In a recent decision the Commission prohibited the proposed takeover by Ryanair of its main competitor in Ireland, Air Lingus. The Commission mentioned that this decision will actually safeguard consumers, which seems somewhat strange for the many passengers using Ryan Air and benefiting of its cheap fares. The Commission stated, however, that it had no alternative because this takeover would have led to a dramatically reduced choice for consumers and, as a result probably also lower quality and higher costs.

Ryanair stated the contrary and believes that the Commission decision is only a result of pressure of the Irish government who would not be happy with such a takeover of the ‘national’ airline. Moreover Ryanair claims that the decision is based on the fact that the Commission does not approve its supposedly aggressive commercial strategies.

Whatever the reasoning might have been the question in the end remains whether or not this decision affects the price consumer will pay for their flight. EU policymakers, both in the field of environment and in the field of competition should therefore at one point consider how their priorities and objectives relate to the freedom of movement of persons. Especially the question whether or not the progress made over the past years to have mobility available for everyone, will need to be limited again.

Roel Hoenders