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How to decarbonise transport and mobility

8 minutes
Train going fast

Is there a recipe for decarbonising transport – and what is the role of Interreg projects? Transport expert Pim Bonne from the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works sheds some light on this question.

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Part 3 in a 4-part series

Transport accounts for 25% of the EU greenhouse gas emissions. A 90% reduction in transport emissions is needed to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 as set out in the European Green Deal.  This should make us all think twice about how we are using transport in our daily life.

Road transport alone accounts for more than 70% of European transport emissions. Cars are the main contributor, followed by heavy duty trucks and buses. According to Eurostat, the North Sea Region has a high level of long distance commuting.  In Belgium, 21% of employed persons commuted to work to a different region; in the Netherlands, the corresponding figure was 16%.

Picture showing employed persons commuting to another region within their country

In Flanders,  more than 63% of commuters go by car, while only 12% use public transport (train, tram, metro and bus). On the bright side, almost 18% use a bike or e-bike.

With such habits, how is it possible to reduce CO2 emissions? Can individuals make a difference or is a change of the system as a whole necessary? I spoke with Pim Bonne, EU coordinator at the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works. He has worked at the Ministry for 16 years, dealing with EU legislation for all modes of transport and EU financing of mobility and infrastructure projects.

Picture showing commuting in Flanders

Commuting in Flanders: Most commuters are still using cars. Graphic by Mobiel Vlaanderen

Three main challenges

Which are the main challenges to overcome? Pim Bonne mentions three main obstacles:

“First, it is difficult to get everyone on board. It is a huge task to change people´s mentality or behaviour, especially with regard to the different approaches in rural areas and cities. It is likely that people in the more rural areas do not necessarily see the air pollution problem and are accusing the inhabitants of the bigger cities to ’export’ their emissions problems. Inhabitants of bigger cities however might not take the responsibility because they are using more public transport or cycle or walk to their workplaces. It is a challenge to convince everyone to acknowledge and be part of the wider picture.” He summarises: “It is not just the responsibility of cities or rural areas. On the contrary, it needs to be an overarching strategy and every individual needs to contribute.”

Secondly, Pim Bonne explains that “the North Sea Region is a centre for a lot of major production and consumption areas and there is a lot of traffic carried out with regard to goods and people, not only on road or rail but also around the three most important ports in the European Union. The North Sea Region is really the logistics heart of Europe, generating transports to all corners of the European Union, which makes greening of transport a challenge here.”

Last but not least, he says the budgetary envelope seems to be limited. “There needs to be sufficient funds, which can trigger more investments from private sector, or from national and local authorities to create leverage effects and to set things in motion. With regard to the ongoing Multiannual Financial Framework discussions and the Commission´s clear objectives for the European Union on reducing transport emissions, it is desirable that there will be a sufficient amount of EU funds available, so that similar initiatives can be carried out in all the countries of the EU.”

EU strategies on the way

I asked Pim Bonne what he sees as the most important policy trends with regards to green mobility.

“Currently the European Green Deal is alpha and omega. The Green Deal is the flagship project of the new Commission under president von der Leyen,” he said. In March, the European Commission announced its proposal for a Climate Law – a first major stride towards meeting the Green Deal.

The European Green Deal

Plans in the transport sector are still pending, but Bonne is expecting “a smart and sustainable transport strategy which will probably have a lot of impact because one of the things they will look into are emission standards. They will also take measures to generate a modal shift to inland waterways and rail. They have also announced a review of the framework for alternative fuels and connected infrastructure, e.g. it is foreseen that one million additional charging and fuelling points will be needed in the European Union by 2025.”

Pim Bonne concludes: “All upcoming strategies cannot be seen as standalone initiatives. The sustainable transport strategy will have links to the climate adaptation strategy and vice versa.” More information about the two strategies is expected by the end of this year or in the beginning of 2021.

Alongside the EU policy trends, numerous national, regional and local initiatives also seek to reduce urban transport emissions. Bonne: “A lot of cities have introduced low-emission zones that promote the soft mobility modes like walking and cycling. And cities are looking into electric or hydrogen public transport. It is not only the Commission making things happen and implementing initiatives top down – there are also a lot of things coming bottom up.”

Is there a recipe for decarbonising transport?

Pim Bonne says: “Even though things are going in the right direction with the Green Deal and the initiatives on various levels, there is no one size fits all approach, especially with regard to new trends such as electrification, hydrogen, shared mobility and automation.”

Low carbon and zero emission are leading the new developments, so Pim Bonne currently sees electrification and hydrogen as very promising, but for hydrogen the supply chain is not established yet. At the same time, transitional fuels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) will continue to play an important role for freight transport; they are fossil but cleaner than traditional fuels.

“We should avoid a technological lock-in where we focus just on one technology or a few,” argues Bonne. “If for whatever reason the chosen solution does not work out, then you have invested quite a lot in only one kind of fuelling or charging infrastructure. It needs to be a healthy mix. Shared mobility and automation can also play a role.”

He pauses before adding, “However, we are again facing the difficulty to change the individual behaviour. The need for transport must change drastically. It is not only about clever new ideas, like cycling stations next to train stations or building the necessary infrastructure. It is also about how people organise themselves and their mobility needs. Although the concept of Mobility as a Service is still developing, the actual global implementation and use for everyday transport will be an important factor in guiding the people in that behavioural switch. The cost of new mobility alternatives and the trust of people in new technologies are equally important here. For the latter, smaller projects and test beds like those funded by the North Sea Region Programme are very relevant.”

Interreg provides crucial test beds and living labs

Pim Bonne sees a clear role of Interreg North Sea Region projects although they are small-scale compared to the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) or other funding programme projects that are able to invest in infrastructure.

“Interreg complements the bigger research funds like Horizon 2020 and funding schemes for infrastructure like CEF Transport. In my view, North Sea Region projects are test beds and living labs, demonstrating the feasibility of solutions that can subsequently be rolled out on a larger scale in the EU.”

The new Flemish coalition agreement 2019-2024 takes a strong focus on cycling, modal shifts to inland waterways, and rail and zero emission transport. Pim Bonne explains: “The North Sea Region test beds are taken seriously by the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works. Experiences from different EU projects are taken into account during the reviewing process of the transport sector in Flanders –all with the focus on climate mitigation.”

  • Cycling is one of the topics where Flanders is drawing from the experiences made in North Sea Region projects. The BITS project aims to reduce CO2 emissions by 9% and increase bicycle use by 10% within target groups, based on the use of Intelligent Transport Systems. The project recently won the prestigious Flemish Road Safety Award for its ground-breaking work with 3D-cameras to make cities safer for cyclists.
  • #IWTS 2.0 is a clear source of experience for the modal shift to inland waterways. #IWTS2.0 aims at carbon emission reduction by promoting Inland Waterway Transport Solutions.
  • When it comes to zero emission transport, Flanders is looking into several North Sea Region  projects, including  the SHARE-North project dealing with shared mobility solutions for a liveable and low-carbon North Sea Region, especially with the focus on mobility hubs. Flanders will invest a lot into mobility hubs and the promotion of it during the next five years.
  • Also projects like G-PaTRA (Green passenger transport in rural areas), Stronger Combined (Combined mobility in the rural public transport system) but also Dual Ports (Developing low carbon utilities, abilities and potential of regional entrepreneurial ports) or ZEM Ports NS (Zero Emission Ports North Sea) – all with Flemish involvement – are perceived as good sources for future developments in Flanders.

Pim Bonne summarises: “The combined knowledge generated by the transnational North Sea Region projects will be taken forward to another level.”

Clearly, there are no shortcuts to decarb

onising transport. However, by acting as test beds, our projects play a crucial role in moving the process forward. And citizens’ behaviour matters a lot, so we can all make a small but significant difference by changing our ways.

Pim Bonne at the harbour

Pim Bonne is a civil engineer who lives in Gent and works as an EU Coordinator at the Flemish Ministry of Mobility and Public Works in Brussels.

He has been a member of the North Sea Region Programme Monitoring Committee since 2007, the start of the IVB programme period. He has also been involved as a partner in several Interreg transport projects.


More ways to cut emissions

Next, we will look at carbon sequestration, where sustainable land management plays the leading role. Stay tuned! Read the previous articles in this series:
1. Enabling climate mitigation in the North Sea Region
2. Five ways to speed up the energy transition


Towards a climate-neutral North Sea Region


Jenny Thomsen is a Project Advisor at the North Sea Region Programme.