Transport, corona, sustainable transformation

Today I will talk on the European Left climate conference, Transform or Collapse organized by the Spanish/Basque party Bildu. You can follow my presentation and the following discussion at the conference site. We will come up at 18.00. You´ll find my presentation below.

Transport sector, corona and the urgent need for a just and sustainable transformation
Jens Holm, Bildu/GUE-conference Transform or collapse 13-14/11

Accounting for one third of the EU’s total greenhouse emissions, the transport sector is one of the main contributors to today’s climate crisis. Up to the corona pandemic, carbon emissions from the transport sector were booming despite both EU and national emission reduction targets. If we keep on with business as usual we will have a huge increase in European transport-related emissions. Add to that, the transport sector is the main cause for more than 400 000 premature deaths in Europe due to bad air quality. And the extra costs for the local air pollution for the member states health budgets is on a staggering 250 to 1000 billion euros.

So, there is an urgent need for a drastic reduction of emissions from the transport sector. Besides the ordinary climate targets the EU has the goal of lowering transport emissions with 60 percent by 2050 (Transport White Paper, 2011). That is an incredibly low target and not in line with the Paris Agreement. Compare for instance with our national target for transport sector in Sweden, were transport emissions should be cut with 70 percent by 2030, at the latest.

In short; continuous emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants are a threat to our existence. How do we solve this?

The response from the Right is to rely on a dream of a technological quick fix and a lot of biofuels. I´m not saying that new technology is bad, of course not. But self-driving cars, Artificial Inteligence, electric airoplanes etc will just not solve the problem.

We need a sustainable and just transformation of the transport sector. And the Left should welcome technological advancement, but also strive to less and better transports, in other words; we need a behavioural change in the transport sector. In order to achive that we in the Left should work with both progressive regulation and with economical tools such as investments, taxes and fees. We should work with both stick and carrot. To rely on the market would be a risky thing.

The pandemic – a window of opportunity
Needles to say, the corona pandemic is a terrible thing. It kills people and closes down our societies. It makes life awful in many respect.

But, no crisis that doesn´t also bring opportunities.

When it comes to our cities (and the pandemic is a predomantly city phenomenon), due to restrictions transports have dropped dramtically, transport with personal cars not the least. We have all seen the pictures with empty streets in Paris, London and other metropolies. Air quality has been improved and there is less noise and congestion. Many cities rightly states that this is not a bad thing and the Covid-19 recovery should keep the good features of the pandemic. That means a recovery that will take space from cars and bring it back to the people. Paris for instance has decided to close down more than 70 percent of the car parking areas in the city and plans for the 15 minutes city. A city with access to all relevant service within 15 minutes walk or cycling. Milan, Barcelona, London and Copenhagen are other examples of cities with strategies to make the covid-recovery in to a green and just one by converting car space into bicycle- and walking lanes, planting trees, building parks and invest more in public transport. In the Mayors network C40 some 40 cities in Europe and elswere have formed a very progressive working group called Global Mayors Covid-19 Recovery Task Force. The aim is to make the recovery just and green. Or as they put it in their manifesto: ”To rebuild our cities & economies in a way that improves public health, reduces inequality and addresses the climate crisis.” Indeed a red and green recovery.

That is the kind of development we in the Left should facilitate in our cities.

Modal shift from road to rail
But it is not all about our cities. In Europe almost 80 percent of the land freight transports are delivered by lorries on roads, with a lot of emissions, noise and congestion as a consequence. From Left to the Right there is pretty much consensus around the necessity for transporting more goods on rail and less on

road. But in today´s marked driven just-in time society that will not happen. However, during the pandemic something actually happned. When goods transport with lorries on roads many times got stuck between our borders or because the drivers were home due to sickness, goods transport on rail has been working smoothly and actually winning market shares during the pandemic. Perhaps a start of a modal shift towards more sustainable freight transports?

Hopefully. And we, as politicians should suppport this modal shift.

One way is simply to tax road transports and use the revenues to the railway and waterways (which is also a more sustainable way to transport goods).The best example would is probably to be found in Europe’s premier transit country, Switzerland. In the year 2001, the Swiss government imposed the Heavy Goods Vehicle Charge, a tax on heavy lorry transports (over 3.5 tons). The tax has been a true success when it has reduced the total number of heavy transports through the country and the revenues been invested in the railway system. A success in other words!

Otherwise, the first thing states could do right now is to reduce, or scrap altogether, the track access fees that railway operators pay today to transport on the rail tracks. That would make it cheaper to transport on railway and the rail sector would grow. Some countries have done that during the pandemic; Germany and France, to mention the two most outstanding examples.

Make the transition both red and green
Let me conclude with some reflections upon how the Left should deal with green transition issues. We embrace the idea of a Green New Deal. That is because it combines lower emissions with building of a society which is more just and inclusive. We sometimes say in Sweden; a real green transition is impossible without left political action. But I would argue that ambitious environmental action is a good left policy in itself.

For instance. I mentioned 400 000 premature death´s due to air pollution. Who are the persons behind this figure? Who lives in dwellings close to noisy motorways and dirty industries? It is not the rich, it is the working class and lower income people. So, building greener cities, with public transport of world class perhaps free of charge – that would benefit the less well off. Our voters.

Another example. Environmental taxation is usually good policy also from a class perspective. Rich people tend to drive more car, have bigger cars and more cars in general. Thus, they will pay more when we tax the cars. If the revenues goes to public transport, bicycling and walking will benefit the less well off even more. And imagine a progressive tax on air flights were the price of tickets increases with the amount of flights that are carried out during a year. Well, it would be the frequent flyers that would pay the price, revenues could go to public transport and rebuild our railway. To the benefit of all.

A final example. In Stockholm we imposed congestion charges 2006 on car trafic in the city. We even won the referendum on this charges, now turned in to a congestion tax. The tax generates valuble resources that can be used to improve the public transport in the Swedish capital. Who benefits from this? Of course, working class and also women compared to men as a group. Since women drive less car and depend more on public transport.

My point is: Ambitious environmental policies are crucial in order to prevent a climate crisis and a collapse in biodiversity, but environmental political action is also fenomenal from a class and gender perspective. And we in the left are the ones who best know how to combine those perspectives. That is the role we should play when the green deal is to be rolled out in our respective countries.

Jens Holm, the Left Party, Sweden