Rethinking Transport – For Sustainability and Economic Growth

Transport will change more over the next 10 years than it has over the last 50 years. This new era is already characterised by digitalisation, accelerated innovation, soaring demand for mobility, and mounting environmental pressures.

We are entering a period of challenges, but also opportunities. If our approach is sustainable, smart, affordable and fair, transport can become an even stronger driving force for our Union – for our citizens’ welfare, for our economy and our environment. 

In tackling these challenges and making sure our economy and our citizens can seize the opportunities before us, the new Commission has set the green transition as its key political priority. The recently adopted European Green Deal sets out our ambition to create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, and gives transport a central role in hitting that target. Our mission is to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from transport by 90% by 2050. I am well aware that this is no easy task. But I have full confidence that together with our scientists, our companies, and our citizens – we will succeed in making transport more sustainable.

It is clear that this transition must be an economic success if we want citizens to embrace it and the whole world to follow our lead. And it will be – the European Green Deal is both a response to environmental challenges and a growth strategy. It sets out clearly the three areas in which we need to act:

• incentivising the right consumer choices and low-emission practices;

• improving efficiency across the whole transport system;

• increasing the uptake of clean vehicles and alternative fuels.

On transport, my focus will be on serving our citizens, businesses and economy in the best possible way in their transition towards our long-term goal of carbon-neutrality. This is why – before putting forward a new strategy on sustainable and smart mobility later this year – we will have an open debate with all concerned. As I meet stakeholders from around the EU and representing all transport modes, no topic will be off limits. We need to rethink what we have been doing up until now, and to look at transport as a whole, from sustainability to digitalisation and business models, and from investment to safety.

For many of the challenges before us, we already have the tools we need at our fingertips, such as new digital solutions. Many of us are familiar with apps enabling a sharing economy, but digitalisation is also improving efficiency across the transport landscape, from air traffic management to port administration. Being smart and sustainable really do go hand-in-hand.

But to exploit the full potential of digitalisation, investment in research and innovation is essential, as is making sure the conditions are right to deploy connected and automated mobility successfully. Innovation is a collective effort, and I am a true believer in working with industry for timely deployment.

In embracing innovation and digitalisation, the transport industry will also benefit from a more modern, multimodal logistics environment, saving both time and money. A real market for digital solutions is emerging, and I want the EU to remain a leader – from blockchain and digital mapping and tracking, to connected and automated vehicles, planes and vessels.

But we also need to take care of those keeping the wheels turning. This Commission has already made it clear that  nobody should be left behind in our transition to climate-neutrality. The Just Transition Mechanism will be key here. It will mobilise €100 billion to address the social and economic effects of the green transition, focusing on the regions, industries and workers who will face the greatest challenges.

For our transport sector workers, we need to ensure they have access to  the skills that future jobs will require. Automation will mean huge changes but it must not come at the cost of the human talent that Europe needs to stay ahead. Eleven million people count on us for their jobs. We will not disappoint them. And we need to prepare future generations for the new jobs in the sector, so we will need to work closely with schools and academia to anticipate the necessary changes.

Many around Europe,  – including me – consider freedom of movement to be precious, fundamental to what the EU is about. Mobility is a right for every single EU citizen, regardless of location, income or special needs. Those in remote areas need to be better connected to our transport network. We will not sacrifice this connectivity; on the contrary, we need to be ready to adapt to evolving needs of a changing demographic, increasing urban population and importance changes in mobility patterns that we are beginning to witness.

Our desire for greater mobility and connectivity is already creating capacity challenges in some transport modes. Let’s be honest: without investment in infrastructure, we cannot solve them. Nor can we be smart, fast or digital. Europe will need to be connected in a wider sense, to the digital network and ensuring citizens have access across the continent to less pollutant fuel sources.

The Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) is our investment tool for infrastructure; it ensures maximum connectivity across the EU. CEF is funding the completion of networks – road, rail, air and waterborne, while financing the vital missing links that isolate communities. To make sure all this will happen, we need to ensure the right budgetary allocations for the new Connecting Europe Facility in the next multi-annual financial framework.

Whether focusing on sustainability or digitalisation, competitiveness or fairness, it is clear that safety will always be my number one priority. Today, we have the safest transport system in the world, but we must constantly improve our standards and remain one step ahead, and there are parts of Europe – including my own country – where more needs and can be done to reduce the number of fatal accidents and serious injuries. There can be no complacency here.

I do not expect the position of EU Transport Commissioner to always be an easy ride. But I do believe that we need to prepare our transport system to effectively answer to the challenges of the future, be it by reducing its carbon footprint, wide-spread digitalisation in the sector, or increased safety features. And I also believe that the people of Europe are behind us in this. Ultimately, where there is a will – and an appropriate budget – there is a way!

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Adina Ioana Vălean has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2007, where she currently chairs the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). She has previously served as Vice-President of the same institution.