Urban Mobility’s Unique Chance to Help Fight Climate Change

By Marc Amblard, Founder & Managing Director, Orsay Consulting

The past few months have transformed our lives in so many ways as never before seen in our lifetimes. We will continue to be negatively impacted for months or possibly even years. But what if something good could come out of it? What if we used this deeply arduous experience to transform certain aspects of our lives for the better — for instance to address the impact of mobility on global warming? As others have said, we should not let a crisis go to waste. Let’s focus on Europe, which appears to be active across more fronts than other regions on this matter.

Source: International Energy Agency
Source: IEA

Forced confinement has drastically reduced road passenger transport activity across the globe. At its lowest points, it reached 38% of its normal level in Europe according to the International Energy Agency. As economic activity continues to rebound, the fear of using public transportation could result in increased use of private vehicles in the short term. However, this is not sustainable in dense European cities as it would cause unbearable congestion.

The combined reduction in mobility and industrial activity resulted in dramatically cleaner air, particularly in the most polluted regions. For instance, Paris saw a 60% drop in NO2 emissions and Spain‘s 10 largest cities experienced a similar 64% decrease. 

Citizens have (re)discovered clean air and clear skies. A recent pan-European survey showed that 64% of the people do not want to go back to pre-Covid pollution levels. Similarly, 68% (63% among drivers) agreed that cities must take measures against air pollution, even if it means preventing polluting cars from entering city centers.

Source: YouGov and Politico
Source: YouGov

Urbanites have also come to appreciate quieter streets and the ability to walk and bike more freely in the absence of vehicles. They have avoided public transportation and preferred walking or using bikes — sales have spiked during the recent period. This provides a great opportunity for officials and urban planners to change the landscape and make some of these benefits permanent, all the more as other habits have also evolved, such as a very likely increase in remote working.

At least two categories of initiatives have emerged to leverage this opportunity, i.e. a faster electrification of the fleet and a lower reliance on vehicles inside our cities. New initiatives are being taken to address both dimensions at the city, country and EU levels.

Many cities reduce the role of cars in mobility

Several European cities have already taken actions to progressively ban older vehicles — and eventually all polluting ones — e.g. Paris, Stuttgart, Amsterdam or London. 

The British capital already imposes a congestion charge to most vehicles driving in the city center (£15 (13.40€) per day as of this month vs. £11.50 prior), and introduced an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in 2019. Access to the ULEZ, diesel and gas passenger vehicles respectively pre-2015 and pre-2006 costs £12.50 (11.20€) per day. It must be noted that London has one of the best public transport system in the world, which is a critical condition.

Among post-Covid initiatives, some consist in making permanent certain bike lanes that have replaced car lanes during confinement, or in banning cars on certain streets. City planners are at work in cities like Paris, Berlin, Milan, Brussels or Barcelona, which have announced such plans. For instance, 35km of Milan streets will be converted over the summer for use by bikers and pedestrians. Paris’ current mayor (up for re-election later this year) has earmarked 20M€ to get people pedaling, and has proposed to eliminate half of the street level parking capacity as part of long lasting fight against cars. Rome is planning 150km of bike lanes and Barcelona has removed parking from 21km of streets to make space for cyclists.

Source: The Guardian
Source Photograph: Zoltán Balogh/EPA

Elected officials are not the only ones to take action. Communities are coming together to deploy Open Street Projects. The not-for-profit provides advocacy, a toolkit, as well as an information database, all dedicated open streets, i.e. temporarily closing streets to cars to make them available to people. Whereas its project focuses mainly on the USA, the organization also works with programs around the world.

Country-level initiatives aim at electrifying to fleet

Several countries have announced bans on polluting vehicles during the past 2 to 3 years. In 2017, Norway was the first nation to introduce a ban on the sale of new vehicles equipped with internal combustion engines, setting the deadline in 2025. Shortly thereafter, several European countries announced similar plans, e.g. France (2040), the UK (2040), Germany (2030) and the Netherlands (2030).

As stimulus programs are introduced across the globe to jumpstart economies, they usually include funds to assist in the automotive industry where its footprint is significant. During the last recession, such programs focused on scrapping older vehicles, which did help improve average emission levels. This time, stimulus programs in Europe seem to focus more on incentivizing the sale of clean vehicles. 

For instance, the French government recently announced an aggressive incentive plan. Buyers of EVs costing less than 45k€ will benefit from a 7k€ bonus (vs. 6k€ previously). If they replace an older vehicle, either pre-2011 diesel or pre-2006 gasoline, the first 200k buyers can get an extra 5k€. Similarly, Germany’s 130B€ recovery plan includes a 6k€ incentive for the purchase of an EV as well as the obligation for all petrol stations to offer EV charging. The country is also considering increasing its motor vehicle tax on new vehicles emitting over 95 g CO2/km, even doubling it above 195 grams, whereas EVs would be exempt. 

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The EU’s recovery plan includes efforts for cleaner mobility

Initiatives to reduce the impact of mobility on global warming were obviously on the EU’s agenda before Covid-19 hit. They include CO2 regulations to reduce corporate average from 120 grams of CO2/km to 95 grams starting in 2020, 81 grams in 2025 and 59 grams in 2030. A penalty of 95€ per vehicle per gram beyond the threshold is currently applicable. For reference, 95 g CO2/km equate to 4.1 liter/100 km or 57.9 MPG for a gasoline vehicle, and to 3.5 and 66.5 for a diesel.

As part of the EU’s stimulus plan, the 750B€ “Next Generation EU” program aims at “repairing and preparing for the next generation.” A “Green Deal” is integral to this plan, with funding dedicated to cleaner transport and logistics. Objectives include the installation of one million charging points for EVs and a boost for rail travel and clean mobility in EU’s cities and regions.

A multi-stakeholder challenge (to be) embraced by all

Regulations at all levels will shift supply and demand towards cleaner transportation. The industry has already committed to spending over $200B globally on EVs between now and 2024, according to AlixPartners — most players would have otherwise stayed in the comfort zone of internal combustion engines. An increasingly appealing range of EVs and the memories of clear skies will entice more buyers to choose clean vehicles, or to forego the acquisition of one altogether. Lastly, more companies are progressively shifting their fleets towards EVs, either for the sake of being good corporate citizens or by sheer need, e.g. for restricted urban deliveries.

I am confident Europe as a whole will take the necessary steps to turn this crisis into an opportunity to make mobility an even bigger part of the solution to solving global warming than anticipated pre-Covid. 


Curious about the other ways that urban mobility is helping to mitigate climate change? Don’t miss these other UM Daily articles:

Moving Towards a Decarbonised Future of Last-Mile Logistics

Decarbonising Transport: What Will It Take?

How Carbon Offsets Can Fund MaaS and Other New Mobility Solutions