The future of sustainable mobility in Spain: policies, progress and a potential roadmap for change

The Paris Agreement, signed in April 2016 by 195 countries, represents the cornerstone of an ambitious agreement, with the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The role of mobility, and particularly the transport and logistics sector, in achieving that objective is essential.

The transport industry is, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), responsible for approximately one fourth of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and represents some 60% of all energy annually consumed in the planet.

In Spain, transportation is the sector with the highest energy consumption - close to 40%, which is much higher elsewhere in the European Union (approx. 30%). In terms of emissions, the sector represents around 29% of total GHG emissions and almost 40% of emissions from diffuse sectors.

Spain is above average because of its agricultural, agri-food and forestry sector, its industrial sector centred on capital goods and the automotive industry, combined with its construction sector, which is declining and its service sector. Road transport is, at present, responsible for more than 90% of the final energy consumption of the sector in Spain and represents 95% of GHG emissions.

Efficiencies on the rise

It is not all bad news: in 2019 (latest available data), as a consequence of efficiency improvements, electrification, and the higher use of biofuels, transport’s global emissions remained stable, slightly increasing by 0.5%, which implies a decrease in relation to the annual average of close to 2% that had been observed since 2000. In Spain, the increase in transport-related emissions was 0.7%, mainly due to road transport because of the 5.7% increase in petrol consumption.

In 2020, as a result of the global lockdown, mobility decreased at an unprecedented scale. Road transport in the regions with restrictive measures declined between 50% and 75% and global average road transport activity fell almost 50% between 2019 and 2020. In the absence of definitive data, early assessments by the IEA indicate that full-year global energy demand could fall by around 6% to 8% in GHG emissions. This reduction would be the largest in history and has certainly been higher in the transport sector.

Green deal of the European Union

Alongside the EU’s Green Deal, the EU Commission presented, on 17 September, an increased ambition to see member states reduce their emissions. Mobility plays a strategic role and the transport industry should contribute to the effort to reduce GHG emissions by 55% for 2030, and by 90% for 2050, with regard to 1990 levels.

For the European Union’s future Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, the lever will be a combination of improvements in energy efficiency, changes in the mix of fuels, digitalisation, fair pricing, and higher use of sustainable and multimodal means of transport.

In Spain, the long-term 2050 Decarbonisation Strategy is aligned with these commitments by presenting the roadmap to move towards climate neutrality by 2050, with milestones in 2030 and 2040.  The National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan 2021-2030 (PNIEC) targets a 23% reduction in GHG emissions compared to 1990. In the transport sector, the Plan establishes an reduction target of around 30% and an expected 28% share of renewable energy in 2030, mainly to be achieved through electrification and biofuels.

Sustainability depends on coherent policies

The future of sustainable mobility and sustainability in transportation largely depends on integrated, coherent, and coordinated policies.

Per type of transport, the change of driving practices or the optimisation of the supply chain in the road transport are not enough to significantly reduce emissions. Electrification, which is essential in the last-mile transportation, raises considerable difficulties in longer range distances. In these longer distances, currently, there are electric fleet alternatives, but the main inconvenience continues to be the large amount of energy required to be recharged by vehicles. Therefore, it is essential to invest in a network of efficient and fast-charging stations.

Progress on the road, railways and sea

In Spain, it is estimated that by 2025 the acquisition of electric vehicles will be predominantly due to technological developments and expected improvements in batteries. Penetration will also be boosted by the adoption of complementary measures that lessen the negative effects of fossil fuels and municipal laws to improve air quality in cities. Regarding electric charging infrastructure, it is expected to be sufficiently implemented by 2030, while electrification in heavy duty vehicles for freight transport will still be a challenge by 2050.

In turn, the electrified rail transport is an efficient means of land transportation, but which requires intensive capital, makes a considerable environmental impact, and holds an enormous influence on adjacent ecosystems. Additionally, numerous developing countries face great challenges, including financial limitations, which often delay the necessary modernisation and expansion of railways. In Spain, specifically, the lack of connected rail transport, the limited penetration of rail-port traffic and the lack of flexibility in scheduling have made it difficult to transfer transportation from road to rail.

In sea transportation, in recent years, progress has been made on new propulsion systems and the optimisation of design, alternative fuels and construction materials, as well as limiting and recycling waste. The use of hydrogen, electrification, or other biofuels are possible alternative fuels.

Due to increasingly restrictive emission regulations, the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in ships is beginning to be implemented in port operations and maritime areas, and it is estimated that by 2050 the use of this fuel could represent 23% of the total marine transport consumption worldwide. The vessel design using LNG is conditioned by cost-benefit analysis, as well as the capacity of the LNG supply infrastructure in port, which is an asset in Spain, where there are seven regasification plants. In years to come, the renewable option to LNG would be biomethane.

Optimising aviation and freight

Concerning aviation, in the last decades, the industry has worked in optimising the efficiency of operations, aircrafts, propulsion technologies, and even through alternative fuels. In relation to electrification, it should be considered that planes, trains or any electric vehicle are only sustainable as long as the electricity used by them is generated from renewable energy sources. The Spanish Decarbonisation Strategy states that in addition to continuing to focus on energy efficiency in consumption, the technology available as an alternative to the use of fossil fuels in the 2050 horizon is renewable fuels such as hydrogen and electric motors in small aircraft.

Without a definitive solution, multimodality is critical in freight transport: the combination of two or more means of transport could be more competitive, and in turn could generate fewer GHG emissions. For long distances, the railway could be an alternative to road transportation in heavy vehicles, as well as the short-distance sea transportation for coast regions.

The transport and logistics sector in Spain and worldwide must take advantage of new technologies and business models to create a more sustainable, accessible and multimodal mobility. However, in order to attain the climate commitments and for the T&L sector to become part of such commitment, technological advances per se are not enough.

Opportunities and obligations for future sustainability

Moreover, the Covid crisis has become an opportunity and an obligation to accelerate action, and to redouble efforts on sustainable mobility. A drastic change in our mobility system is needed, combining policies, integrated measures, and innovating technological solutions towards a decarbonised future in transportation.

Climate change will still intensify the vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic, but over the longer term.