Carbon-neutrality in the European road transport sector: A long road to net-zero?

Carbon-neutrality in the European road transport sector: A long road to net-zero?

Frontier provides insights on sustainable pathways to climate neutral mobility in Europe

Where we are currently

The European Union is striving to achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) across all sectors under its “Green Deal”, no later than 2050. However, while some parts of the European economy (e.g. the power and industrial sectors) have already achieved significant reductions in GHG emissions already, emissions from the transport sector have remained on a high level. As of today, the European road sector accounts for around 20% of Europe’s overall GHG emissions per year.

Looking for a fast track route to carbon-neutrality

The EU’s current policy approach for net-zero in the road sector primarily focuses on tailpipe emissions for road vehicles (“Tank-to-Wheel” (TtW) emissions), largely ignoring emissions from vehicle production and the associated fuel supply chain.

In our report “Future Fuels Study IVb” (2022) for FVV, the German Research Association for Combustion Engines, we provide a more comprehensive view on the pathway to net-zero in the European road transport sector. We explicitly take into account WtW emissions (“Well-to-Wheel” (WtW) – including supply chain as well as tailpipe emissions – to address the question of how cumulated GHG emissions could be minimised by 2050.

Our model-based approach considers eleven carbon-neutral powertrains – including battery-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids as well as vehicles running on e-fuels, hydrogen or e-methane (all exclusively powered with renewable energy).

A unique feature of our study is that we explicitly take into account vehicle needs in terms of material and infrastructure demand (i.e. from renewable generation capacity to the number of charging points required per electric vehicle) while – at the same time – factoring in the maximum supply of material and infrastructure available for the European road sector for each carbon-neutral pathway. For the latter, we have – in close collaboration with several FVV expert groups consisting of over 50 participants from more than 40 companies and organisations from the energy and transport sector – compiled material and infrastructure ramp-up rates under ideal legal and financial investment conditions.

Ways forward – our key findings

Our model-based optimisation provides insightful results regarding the pathway to net-zero in the European road sector. We summarise our key findings below:

  • A mix of carbon-neutral energy carrier/powertrain pathways can speed up the transition to GHG neutrality for the EU27+UK road sector: Our study shows that all carbon-neutral pathways face bottlenecks of various kinds, constraining the maximal deployment rate for each individual technology. A mix of technologies can accelerate the proliferation of carbon-neutral vehicles on the road significantly, and hereby support GHG minimisation efforts.
  • Infrastructure and material bottlenecks need to be addressed quickly to avoid higher than necessary emissions from the European road sector: Our modelling further shows that the majority of GHG emissions are caused by the phase-out of the vehicle legacy fleet still operated by fossil energy carriers. Therefore, the faster a defossilised vehicle fleet can be introduced, the lower the cumulative GHG emissions will be, therefore decreasing the impact on climate change.
  • E-fuels provide a unique technology option which will mean the existing vehicle fleet can operate in a carbon-neutral way: Backward compatible energy carriers such as e-gasoline and e-diesel (e.g. via Methanol-to Gasoline and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis) will allow a quick defossilisation of the existing vehicle fleet once they become available at large scale. Despite long lead times for setting up such synthesis plants, they can support overall GHG reduction efforts.
  • Banning combustion-engine vehicles from 2035 would lead to higher GHG emissions than necessary: While a defossilisation of the EU27+UK road sector could also be achieved without combustion-engine vehicles, this would in turn increase cumulated emissions and cumulated total costs. This is because it further reinforces dependencies on critical technical bottlenecks and limits the option to accelerate further defossilisation through compatible synthetic energy carriers (e-gasoline, e-diesel) to any existing vehicle fleet with combustion engines.
  • Shifting heavy-duty vehicles towards a carbon-neutral technology pathways could lead to significant GHG emissions savings: While heavy-duty vehicles only make up approx. 2% of the EU27+UK vehicle stock, they account for around 45% of today’s overall total fuel consumption within the European road sector. Therefore, finding carbon-neutral solutions here, could lead to huge GHG emission savings.

Frontier regularly advises on alternative energy sources and fuels. For more information, please get in touch with us on or call +44 (0) 20 7031 7000.

Click here for the full report on FVV’s website.