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Transport emissions up

Nils ZimmermannAugust 5, 2015

Bigger cars, more miles, few e-cars: Germany's transport sector carbon emissions are up. That will make it hard to meet the country's ambitious 2020 CO2 reduction target. Fresh impulses are needed.

Recharging post for electric vehicles at Cologne-Bonn Airport, 2012
Image: imago/H. Galuschka

It's a long-standing policy of the German government that every sector of the economy is supposed to be progressively decarbonized. Net zero national carbon emissions, or close to it, are to be achieved by 2050.

That's why the automobile of the future is supposed to be electric. In 2010, the German government set a target of a million German-made e-cars on the road by 2020.

"It's an ambitious target whose attainment will require many more steps," said Beate Braams, a spokeswoman for the federal energy ministry. "Since the government's e-mobility policy program was announced in 2011, there has already been quite a bit of movement."

But as things stand, the government's e-mobility target doesn't look remotely plausible - and that puts its overall 2020 carbon emissions target at risk, too: a planned 40 percent reduction in overall emissions compared to 1990.

e-car in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate
Daimler's 'Smart' brand e-car in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sebastian Kahnert

Transport emissions rising

Carbon emissions from the transport sector have stubbornly resisted any decline during the past three decades. They're slightly higher today than they were in 1990 - and they increased by 3 percent year-on-year from 2013 to 2014. The trend-line is going in the wrong direction.

"The transport sector accounts for about 18 percent of Germany's total carbon emissions," said Maria Krautzberger, president of the Federal Environment Agency, at the agency's release of its 2015 State of the Environment report in Berlin.

According to the report, 98 percent of transport sector end-user energy is delivered by fossil fuels, with only 2 percent delivered from electricity. "That needs to change," Krautzberger said.

The 2 percent electrification of the transportation system is thanks to Germany's railway system, which is almost entirely electric.

Transport of goods by means of trucks, trains, airplanes and ships accounts for about 30 percent of transport emissions, with four-fifths of that from trucks, all of them fossil-fueled.

Most of the other 70 percent of transport emissions comes from fossil-fueled cars. E-cars are meant to be the solution to that problem.

E-car recharging post
There's no longer a shortage of e-car models. But there's a serious shortage of recharging stationsImage: imago/S. Geisler

Barriers to electric vehicle breakthrough

By the end of 2014, German carmakers had 17 distinct electric vehicle models on offer. Yet the number of electric cars on German roads remains tiny, with just under 19,000 e-cars registered as of January 2015, according to Germany's Federal Motor Vehicles Agency.

That compares with 108,000 hybrid and 44.3 million fossil-fueled cars. In addition, some nine million trucks, tractors, buses, and motorbikes bring the total number of motorized vehicles up to 53.7 million.

To go from 19,000 e-cars to a million in five years - that presents quite a challenge. Beate Braams, from the energy ministry, told DW that the federal government has a lot of initiatives on the go to help move things forward.

Among other things, it spent 1.4 billion euros in R&D funding, organized a stakeholder consultation forum called the "National Platform for Electromobility," offered tax breaks for buyers, and directed that 10 percent of cars purchased or rented by the federal government must be e-cars.

Infografic End-user energy use of Transport sector
Transport sector energy use in Germany

It's all about the recharging

But those steps aren't nearly enough to motivate ordinary Germans to buy e-cars. The biggest barriers: Lack of battery recharging stations and the limited range of e-cars.

To date, Germany has only about 5,600 publicly accessible e-car recharging stations. Yet in order for a million or more e-cars to be able to sit at a kerb recharging, the country will need hundreds of thousands of recharging posts - or a similar number of battery-pack swapping stations.

The government realizes that, but with basic issues like a standard plug design not yet worked out, it's too soon to start large-scale installation of recharging stations.

"The energy ministry has recently released a draft regulation for a mandatory standard recharging plug design," Braams said. The draft regulation has been submitted to the European Commission and is currently at the "notification phase."

Interim steps

Even if a miracle happens and a million e-cars are on German roads by 2020, that will leave some 43 million fossil-fueled ones still roaring around the landscape. That's why the federal environment agency is calling for more aggressive CO2 emissions standards for fossil-fueled cars.

Tesla Motors Elon Musk
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk founded Tesla Motors to foster faster evolution in e-car developmentImage: AFP/Getty Images/J. Lampen

"Currently, the government requires that by 2020, 95 percent of all new cars sold must not emit more than 95 grams per km," Krautzberger said. "We recommend that the standard be tightened to the 70 to 80 g/km range by 2025 at the latest."

A few years ago, biofuels were touted as the big answer. Many thousands of hectares of land have been planted in rapeseed and corn in Germany to produce biofuels, and some lobby groups continue to press for biofuels expansion. But skeptics point to the ecological costs and limits.

"Biofuels still involve substantial CO2 emissions, and limits on land availability mean biofuels can't be more than a partial solution. Planting corn or rapeseed on agricultural land in Germany, or replacing rainforests in Indonesia with palm-oil plantations in order to produce biofuels, doesn't make a lot of sense," said Ruth Blanck of Berlin's Applied Ecology Institute.