Transforming Transport for True Transitioning

The following article is an excerpt from Ecosprinter’s 2021 printed edition on a just transition. We decided to bring you the articles from this edition in a digital form as well.

Whether you believe it or not: the European Parliament has officially declared the year 2021 as the European Year of Rail. The tradition of European Years promoting a particular political theme through national awareness campaigns and legislative decisions on the European level dates back to 1983. What might strike some as surprising however, is to declare 2021 as a year in which rail mobility is to be widened, strengthened, and popularized while this very same year will likely be dominated by continued constraints on individual mobility. Staggering infection rates of SARS-CoV-2 and alarming calls for social distancing and travel restrictions rightly seem at odds with the European Union’s (EU) ambition to promote rail travel and freight transportation in the upcoming twelve months. After all, globalized hyper-mobility plays a crucial role in the speedy geographical expansion of the SARS-Virus; the time-space compression of international travel has had decisive influence on exacerbating the destructive effect of the Covid-19-pandemic worldwide. Yet, and interestingly enough, it is for this very reason that the decision for the European Year of 2021 to promote rail travel and freight transportation is both timely and crucial. 

2020 has not only witnessed a pandemic holding the globe in a tight grip. 2020 was the year in which industrial manufacturing and international tourism came to an unimaginable stand still – and while damaging for national economies, it allowed most countries to align with their respective C02 reduction commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement. 2020 was also the year in which the European Commission announced its European Green Deal, a political framework aiming towards achieving carbon neutrality in Europe in 2050. The Green Deal assigns the decarbonisation of the transportation sector a key role in reaching its climate targets. Regrettably, it is not due to the sector’s leading role in sustainability; after all, EU-wide transport-related emissions account for one-quarter of the Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While individual households, the agricultural sector, the industry, and the energy sector have all achieved slight reductions in CO2 emissions since 1990, the transportation sector has seen a further increase in CO2 consumption in that same period. While road transportation still squares first, aviation is the only sector that increased its share: aviation-related emissions rose from 7,2 percent in 1990 to 13,9 in 2017. For the EU to reach its ultimate target of carbon neutrality by 2050, the transportation sector alone is envisioned to emit 90% less compared to 1990 levels. 

While it becomes evident that a focus on transforming transportation needs to become part and parcel of the EU’s sustainability strategy, the anticipated gains for climate justice should not come at the cost of significant benefits brought about by increased geographical connectivity. The popularity of the European Union’s Erasmus+ Programme, the world’s largest funded exchange program, is exemplary for the tremendous possibilities brought about by Intereuropean mobility: every year, more than 300.000 young Europeans travel across the continent to experience Europe, immerse themselves in a diversity of cultures, and foster friendships in far-away places. But with over 75% of Erasmus participants choosing the plane when travelling to and from their exchange university, the Erasmus Programme significantly contributes to the EU’s CO2 footprint. Luckily, the wheel needs no reinvention: rail transportation is coming to the rescue of climate protectors and travel enthusiasts alike. Thanks to high levels of electrification, the rail sector was able to achieve a reduction of 66% indirect CO2 emissions within the same period that the aviation sector saw its emissions rise. This allows the rail industry to champion sustainable travel, contributing a marginal 0.5% of emissions produced by EU-wide travel and freight transportation. Alas, politically created competitive advantages of the aviation sector – the kerosene tax being just one of them – contribute to a continued popularity of plane travel. Individuals are not to blame: with most Erasmus participants bearing their own travel costs, sustainable modes of traveling on a European scale are unattainable for many, especially those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

With the introduction of the European Green Deal and the elevation of the European Union’s intermediary climate targets, from a previously envisioned reduction of CO2 emissions of 40% by 2030 to 55%, the year 2020 can be said to have been that of grand promises. But climate action does not become reality through promises alone. It necessitates detailed and precise proposals and their stringent and prompt implementation. It requires an active civil society that demands concrete action from its politicians and is itself engaged in creative problem-solving. With the initiation of the European Year of Rail, the EU seeks to transform the transportation sector by “putting users first and providing them with more affordable, accessible, healthier and cleaner alternatives to their current mobility habits”. For the remainder of the European Year of Rail, citizens should use this window of opportunity and approach the bodies of the European Union with specific ideas for filling the void yawning between grand goals and restraint implementation. 

One example for this sort of societal engagement is the initiative Erasmus by Train, seeking to tackle the reduction of the Erasmus-related CO2 emissions (disclaimer: the author is part of the initiative). We demand the European Union to provide each participant of an Erasmus exchange with a free Interrail ticket to travel across Europe via rail without additional cost. Sustainable travel becomes more affordable for all and the cost barrier to participate in the exchange program is lowered. This effect not only allows for the transition towards a more socially just and sustainable Erasmus Programme, there is yet another positive side effect: slower and longer travel grants participants the opportunity to witness the changes in landscapes, cultures, and people en route from their home to their exchange destination. As promises of sustainability become institutionalized in EU programs, the very idea of the European Union becomes more tangible through this travel experience. Besides its tremendous benefits, Erasmus by Train alone does not make for a comprehensive transformation of the transportation sector. The European Year of Rail widens a window of opportunity previously opened by the European Green Deal and provides momentum for pushing innovative ideas for initiating a switch to train transportation of both passengers and freight – to allow for a just and sustainable transformation of the EU-wide transportation sector. Citizens should feel encouraged to step forward demanding a kerosene tax, the expansion of a European rail network with suitable cross-border infrastructure, international booking systems, night trains, and subsidies for freight transported by rail. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought tremendous challenges to previously successful strategies of climate activism. Simultaneously, it has brought the previously persistent status quo to its knees. According to the idea of building back greener, now is the time to ensure that new economic and mobility models are geared towards the railways. The European Year of Rail 2021, coinciding with an ongoing struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic, might not provide the opportune conditions to experience rail travel. But by coinciding with another year of global warming, deforestation, and factory farming, it’s crucial timing to promote the transportation sector’s key role in a just and sustainable transition is highlighted. Bringing it full circle, the sustainability gains achieved through decarbonisation of the transportation sector and a shift towards rail travel play a crucial role in the prevention of future pandemics: not only does the CO2 reduction contribute to healthier ecosystems – the most important natural barriers containing the spread of the viruses – rail travel makes goods and people travel around the world a little slower – this time-space decompression is a crucial social barrier for the spread of future viruses. The European Year of the Rail hence provides a timely opportunity to bring back civil engagement and demand strategic action for the transformation towards just and sustainable transportation. On your marks, get set, go.

Tatjana Söding

Tatjana is a co-founding member of Erasmus by Train e.V., an initiative that advocates for the provision of free Interrail Tickets for all participants of the Erasmus+ Program. She holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Arts from University College Maastricht and is currently studying Human Ecology at Lund University. Being passionate about environmental justice, Tatjana is exploring ways in which a transport and energy transition can be reached through degrowth strategies.