Air pollution from EU passenger transport continues to fall

However EU agency says ‘more action’ needed to reduce the impact of transport on air pollution and climate change

Air pollution emissions from passenger transport continues to fall slightly in Europe, but “more action” is still needed to reduce transport’s environmental impact, according to the European Environment Agency.

Published yesterday (December 9), the EU agency’s annual TERM transport report focuses in particular on long distance passenger travel, which it says puts “major pressure on the environment”.

This year's TERM 2014 report by the EEA highlighted the problem of air pollution caused by long distance passenger travel

This year’s TERM 2014 report by the EEA highlighted the problem of air pollution caused by long distance passenger travel

This is because while the “vast majority” of journeys are short distance, long distance freight and passenger transport demand together account for up to three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions and a “large proportion” of air pollutant emissions.

The report estimates that Europeans collectively travelled 6.4 trillion kilometres in 2012 and that car transport made up more than 70% of this distance.

However, while both car transport and its associated air pollution emissions have continued to decline since 2009, in contrast air transport and has increased “very fast” over recent decades — along an increase in several associated pollutants — which the EEA says may be partly due to changing consumption habits.

It cites research suggesting that younger generations prefer to spend disposable income on long distance travel rather than consumer products such as cars, although this varies across the EU.

While per capita car travel peaked in 2004 in the original 15 EU Member States, it continues to grow in the newer 13 Member States.

But, according to the report, although passenger transport demand fell 1.4% in 2012 and freight transport volumes also fell by 2.1%, it is currently “unclear” whether these are long term trends as the figures may have been partly influenced by the recession.

Long distance emissions

According to the report, the number of trips taken in urban areas is “much greater” than the number of long-distance passenger trips, but despite this long-distance passenger transport volume accounts for up to 40% of all journeys.

And, the TERM 2014 report states, emissions from road, maritime and air transport “have the potential to increase background concentrations of key pollutants at a regional level”.

This includes nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter PM2.5 and PM10, which can be influenced by traffic emissions from the whole surrounding region, such as motorways, other towns and cities and even other countries.

Some pollutants from long distance travel — such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and ammonia — can undergo atmospheric transformation processes to form particulate matter, the report explains.

Bristol city council map of the AQMA

Bristol city council map of the AQMA (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile, the atmospheric oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can form organic aerosols and the reaction of nitrogen oxides with VOCs and carbon in the presence of sunlight can form ozone.

Overall, car and air travel are the main emission sources for long-distance passenger transport, but despite technical developments to cut emissions and raise occupancy rates, average specific emissions per passenger and kilometre have “not significantly decreased in recent years”.

Still, as well as long distance travel, the EEA also criticises levels nitrogen dioxide and particulates in urban areas due to shorter journeys, which it says has been “exacerbated by increasing proportions of diesel cars” due to fuel tax policies giving preferences to diesel over petrol-driven equivalents.

Electric vehicles

The number of alternative fuel car registrations increased slightly in 2013, with battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles together accounting for 0.5% of total new registrations in the EU.

However, the EEA described this as “sluggish growth”, on which it blames incentives such as scrappage schemes and company car systems which “continue to support internal combustion engine vehicles in many Member States”.

Company cars

According to the report, most EU Member States apply more favourable tax regimes for company cars and these vehicles “tend to be driven longer distances”, which impacts on air pollution.

However, there is “little incentive for the employee to reduce the number of trips, distances driven, or fuel consumption in general” under most company car systems in Europe.

The EEA argues, therefore, that the system of company car subsidies in many EU Member States leads, overall, to “increased GHG [greenhouse gas] and air pollution emissions compared to the market for new private cars”.

The ‘TERM 2014: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe’ report was prepared by the EEA and supported by its European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation (ETC/ACM), as well as its European Topic Centre on Climate Chang Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation (ETC/CCA).


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