Electric mobility: letting Europe breathe

Published on Thursday, 10 May 2018

A major polluter is doing the rounds in Europe. While greenhouse gas emissions dropped in industry, building and energy between 1990 and 2015, the exact opposite occurred in the transport sector, where they actually jumped 20%. This phenomenon not only puts Europe’s climate protection goals at risk: it also affects the health of its citizens and their quality of life. In the EU alone, there are more than 400,000 air pollution-related premature deaths each year, mostly caused by transportation.

These figures demand that we adopt effective countermeasures and there is absolute consensus that e-mobility is the most promising way forward in this respect. However, the thorny issue is how e-mobility can be implemented on a large scale. The European economic think tank Bruegel organised the “Cleaning up Europe’s transport sector: which strategies?brainstorming session in Brussels on 3 May in order to come up with some answers to this very question.

In his keynote address to the event, Enel CEO and General Manager Francesco Starace underscored the importance of technological development. The two main factors driving the changes currently sweeping the energy world are also affecting the automotive sector. The most obvious is, of course, digitalisation, something that can be seen on the dashboard of any modern car. It is also fundamental to setting up and managing the electric vehicle charging point network as efficiently as flexibly as possible, as well as turning e-vehicles into a way of stabilising the grid when they are not running. The other factor is the evolution going on in materials science, which is producing increasingly durable, tough and more cost-effective materials. This is particularly true of batteries, which are becoming increasingly efficient. Over the next few years, in fact, e-vehicles will be able to compete on a level footing with their conventional counterparts.

Right now, however, the market is not large enough to support the growth of e-mobility on its own. Intervention is required on a regulatory level, as explained by Bruegel research fellow Simone Tagliapietra, who presented the results of his “Addressing Europe’s Failure to Clean up the Transport Sector” study to the workshop. There has been some political action in the past but there has also been a lack of coordination at national, community and even individual citizen level. Certain cities, for instance, have instigated a ban on diesel or petrol vehicles by 2030 or 2040. However, these are isolated actions and thus not hugely effective. Tagliapietra’s first recommendation to the European institutions is to encourage initiatives of this kind. The second focuses on fiscal policies, which can help encourage both industry and consumer segments to adopt sustainable mobility solutions. Lastly, the European Union needs to adopt a research and innovation-focused financing plan for sustainable mobility: this is not just a way of protecting the environment, it will also consolidate and relaunch European industry’s leadership position on a global scale.

The Enel CEO added another suggestion of his own: we need to focus on electrifying our public transport systems as they are huge consumers of energy and are running most of the time. Most of all, the transition to electric power would be far easier to regulate on public transportation fleets than private vehicles.

Francesco Starace then wrapped up on a positive note: even though the transition to e-mobility will be gradual, it is already very clearly underway and unstoppable. Even the big manufacturers have taken this fact onboard to the extent that the mere idea of a Ferrari or a Harley Davidson with an electric motor is no longer considered blasphemy.