European road freight’s decarbonization challenge

Road freight must almost entirely decarbonize by 2050 and this enormous challenge is made even more daunting given that demand for truck services is expected to triple over the same timeframe.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Road Freight Zero (RFZ) initiative – which is supported by a number of freight transport and logistics majors and global shippers, “given the fragmented market, asset lifecycles and massive infrastructure adaptation needed, urgent action is required now, to ensure the transition pathways may accelerate during the 2030s.”

In its briefing paper published last year, Towards a Holistic Regulatory Framework for Reducing Road Freight Emissions in Europe, it calls for the creation of “the right enabling environment to ensure the adoption of ambitious emission reduction targets.”

Heavy-duty vehicles generate around one-quarter of road transport emissions in the European Union (EU) and it is estimated that several hundred thousand zero-emission trucks (ZETs) will have to be in operation by the end of the present decade for the sector to be compatible with the Paris Agreement goals.

Ambitious CO2 Reduction Targets

European law makers have backed the most ambitious CO2 reduction targets globally for truck manufacturers. By 2030, the CO2 emissions of new vehicles must be at least 45% lower than 2019/2020 levels.

“To meet such targets, Europe will need a complete system transformation involving all public and private actors across the heavy-duty transport ecosystem,” the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) notes.

It estimates that in order to achieve the EU’s CO2 reduction target of 45% by 2030 more than 400,000 zero-emission trucks (ZETs) will have to be on roads – around 100,000 new zero-emissions trucks registered annually or at least one-third of new sales; and that at least 50,000 publicly-accessible chargers, including 35,000 Megawatt Charging Systems and 700 hydrogen refilling stations with a daily capacity of two tonnes, are required.

While the number of ZETs is set to increase steadily in the coming years, their current deployment trajectory is not considered sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

On the infrastructure side, the ACEA highlights “a near absence” of charging and refilling facilities and a lack of effective carbon pricing schemes and support measures to replace conventional models with zero-emission alternatives are major obstacles.”

“For truck manufacturers, the question is not if, but how fast we can decarbonize. We’re doing our part by providing the vehicles and technology to make Europe’s road transport fossil-free by 2040. Yet, failure to address enabling conditions will not only slow down our sector’s green transition, but also threaten our global competitiveness,” underlined ACEA Director General, Sigrid de Vries.

IRU Favors Efficiency and Alternative Fuels

Meanwhile, recent research by global trade body, the International Road Transport Union (IRU), concludes that a combination of efficiency measures and alternative fuels is the best way to achieve carbon neutrality in commercial road transport by 2050 in Europe, being the least disruptive and most cost-effective compared to a heavier focus on electrification or hydrogen power.

“This ‘duplex’ plan delivers a zero-emission industry, but will cost governments and business less, and allows more future transport growth to support economic and social prosperity,” said IRU Secretary General, Umberto de Pretto.

Beyond the CO2 targets for trucks on paper and the studies into what constitutes an optimal net-zero 2050 plan, what is the mood like on the ground, among road hauliers, with regard to decarbonization?

A look at the current state of the sector in France - and it is a similar picture in other major European economies - could lead to the conclusion that truck operators have enough on their plate without having to worry about their carbon footprint.

Company failures are at their highest for 10 years and the market outlook for 2024 is far from rosy.

FNTR Sees “Gulf” in Availability Timeframe

The FNTR is the leading road haulage federation in France representing a highly-fragmented sector where more than 80% of firms employ fewer than 10 staff and who are feeling the pinch of tight margins very keenly.

Although confronted with difficult market conditions at present, Séverine Michaud, who heads the FNTR’s Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, revealed that hauliers nevertheless see energy transition and electric vehicles as a pressing concern.

Interviewed by the French press at the end of last year, she commented: “The FNTR advocates energy solutions from various sources, not just one, and which take into account, the different segments of the road haulage sector.

“We're all hauliers, but we don't operate under the same technical and regulatory constraints. Today, electric vehicles appear to be the favored path, but we think that’s a mistake. If we take the example of a company working in hazardous materials transport, will it be able to enter a dangerous goods location or refinery with electric batteries (installed on trucks)? Not today, maybe tomorrow, but when exactly?”

She emphasized the “gulf” in the timeframe for the setting up of low emission traffic zones and that for the availability of electrically-powered HGVs. “What is more, we mustn't forget biofuels such as B100.”

Who Will Pay for ZETs?

A central question is who will bear the extra cost in acquiring ZETs?

“A haulier can't afford to buy a model that costs two or three times more than a diesel-powered truck. Does the government have the financial resources to enable all carriers to make the transition? I'm not sure because the volumes involved are going to be colossal. In addition, the administrative procedure will no doubt have to be simplified because feedback from my colleagues who have responded to the call for projects, suggests you have to be very organized and combative with your application…”

Michaud went to claim that sometimes the amount of state aid does not correspond to the sum announced. “One haulier told me that for a vehicle worth €400,000 ($438,214), he only received €40,000 ($43,821), instead of the €100,000 ($109,553) stated in the grant scheme. The government is going to have to give us more support. At the same time, our shipper customers have to contribute to the effort by accepting significant rate increases.”

The task of renewing their fleets with greener trucks aside, European hauliers still have plenty of time to prepare for the introduction of EU’s Emissions Trading System 2 which will encompass road transport in 2027. However, the monitoring and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions is scheduled to begin in 2025.

Stuart Todd
Stuart Todd


Contact Author

© Copyright 1999–2024 American Journal of Transportation. All Rights Reserved