Beyond a Cold Winter: Assessing transport's energy efficiency

07 Oct 2022  –  Written by Jessica Sumner

The transportation sector, covering air, road, rail, and marine, accounts for a third of Europe’s energy use, alongside major usage by households and industry. Crucially, with an energy crisis looming ahead, and anti-war measures aimed at the Russian economy, no time has proven more vital for European countries to pivot their patterns of consumption towards more efficient practices. A re-evaluation of the systems that flow through our urban environments is central to transforming energy efficiency. Specifically, transportation has grown as a central area to address within the EU’s governing bodies. However, these approaches have demonstrated less than ideal progress due to a lack of cohesion as countries tend to follow national-specific strategies rather than a congruent Europe-wide approach. 

Luckily, this matter continues to receive attention through the European Commission’s €5 billion call for project proposals to make transport energy efficient. This initiative aims to support projects across all EU Member States along the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T). This project proposal is further supported by the December 2020 action plan also presented by the European Commission titled: ‘Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy’. In this action plan, ambitious approaches like “no more conventionally fuelled cars in cities” and “a 50% shift of medium distance intercity passenger and freight journeys from road to rail and waterborne transport” are expected to result in a 60% cut in transport emissions by 2050. European cities have the opportunity to demonstrate the potential that urban measures have to impact issues of geo-political conflict and environmental efficacy. Through ambitious actions, Europe will be directing energy efforts toward a more sustainable trajectory.


Measurable Results for Minute Changes

Not only is the need to challenge the inefficiency of transportation systems necessary, as demonstrated through the sector’s 23 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions and 64 percent of global oil consumption, but it is also an issue that has measurable and tangible results. For instance, it is proven that improvements in energy efficiency to date have enabled savings of around 1.5 Mtoe (Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent) per year on average since 2000 to 2021, and even 2.3 Mtoe per year over 2008-2013, i.e. twice as much as since 2014. This data demonstrates how incremental changes on the part of individuals generate a causal sequence of rewards for our energy systems as a whole. As the need for improved efficiency is evident, and evidence is available that it pays off, it now needs effective comprehensive action to take place across the EU. 


Addressing Bottlenecks and Inefficiencies in defence of Ukraine

In recent months, the EU has brought in much-needed proposals to address the environmental and geopolitical consequences of the widespread reliance on oil and natural gas from Russia. Part of the urgency to implement the proposed frameworks of this initiative stems from the EU’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, thus causing countries to urgently re-route essential goods and find and provide sustainable alternatives. This re-routing has at times created bottlenecks and reduced supplies in Member States that previously relied on Eastern imports. The Commissioner has further attempted to address these issues through the new proposals, aiming to “modernise border crossing points so as to facilitate the transport of goods between the EU and Ukraine along the Solidarity Lines – the lifelines of Ukraine’s economy.” Other related initiatives include updating the maps for the aforementioned Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) as part of the Commission’s policy on extending the TEN-T to neighbouring countries, increasing the infrastructure capacity of new export corridors, and establishing new infrastructure connections. These go alongside the EU’s objective of addressing transportation bottlenecks that are causing logistical challenges to Ukrainian exports which face issues of storage, customs, and capacity. Therefore, improving components of transportation, including making it more accessible for all, improving passenger rights, and reevaluating infrastructure to maximise public transportation networks and cyclability, not only have environmental advantages but serve wider geo-political purposes. 


EU Togetherness in Achieving Energy Efficiency 

Looking across various modes of transport and their respective energy usage, it is evident that little has been done to improve the detrimental effects in the long-term of current unsustainable transit practices. More so, in terms of the nexus between modes of transportation and energy efficiency, car usage consistently contributes to poor efficiency, leads to heavy congestion, and ultimately deteriorates the quality of life in urban environments at an exponential rate. Given that the transportation sector is the only EU sector in which greenhouse gas emissions have risen since 1990, the approach to mitigating and eliminating some of these effects must come both from the micro-level (reducing car usage, improving public transportation incentives, and making pedestrians and cyclists feel safer) and the macro-level (carbon-neutral urban policies, expanding inclusivity in transit options, and informing leaders and citizens of the effects). This could be achieved by initiatives such as the UK’s Future of Transport programme which aims to stimulate innovation in the transport sector and create new transport markets that will lead to improvements in air quality and advance decarbonisation. Ambitious innovation goals like these are what will be key to improving efficiency and reducing stresses on the European energy market.


Evaluating Efficiency

Thus far, progress in energy efficiency has not exceeded the rate of depletion of fossil fuels and overall maintenance of a sustainable environment and, as such, it cannot be said that much progress in sustainable transportation has been made in the past two decades. Whether it is single-passenger car usage or the efficiency of fuel, these subcategories that contribute to the overall aim of carbon neutrality are not progressing uniformly. For instance, while technical efficiency has improved by 0.4% per year, a decrease in car occupancy has contributed to lower efficiency progress by 0.3% per year; and thus the change in fuel composition has had a limited effect. Evaluating transportation efficiency is similarly important since traffic growth has continued to increase at a rate that surpasses transportation improvements in energy efficiency.

The most successful approach towards addressing transportation energy inefficiency is a comprehensive one towards multi-modal transport systems for both passengers and industry. It is vital to pre-empt ways in which infrastructure can mitigate future saturation of energy usage and even attempt to reverse the damage already straining the environment. Progress is already being seen on this front with the aforementioned European Commission project whose scope will aim to address on-site renewable energy generation, port reception facilities for oil and other waste to meet environmental requirements, and the development of ports’ capacities and facilities in relation with offshore wind farms. Through more progressive initiatives, and genuine efforts toward evaluating and adjusting policies, the future of transportation is ideally inclusive, efficient, and progressive.

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Recommended citation:

Sumner, J. (2022) Beyond a Cold Winter: Assessing transport’s energy efficiency, IDRN, 07 October. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].