Last week, Frans Timmermans, the EU Executive Vice-President for the Green Deal, announced he is leaving his post in order to run to become the next prime minister of the Netherlands. As a final parting gesture, he unveiled a proposed package of laws aimed at slashing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the EU freight sector, shifting cargo from road to rail and waterways, and outlawing misleading green claims by shippers about the environmental footprint of their deliveries.

“Our proposals will help to get more zero-emission trucks on the road and make sure that this freight is handled in the most sustainable way possible, whether it travels by truck, train or barge,” he said. “Every day, billions of goods are traveling on European roads and railway tracks.”

The EU freight package contains three pieces of legislation: creating incentives to vehicle manufacturers to make zero-emission trucks, changing rail capacity management to give more access to freight and improve cross-border connections, and developing the ‘CountEmissionsEU’ metric for shipping companies to calculate their GHG emissions in a uniform way.

It follows a Commission proposal in February to tighten CO₂ restrictions for heavy-duty vehicles by 45% from 2030, 65% from 2035 and 90% by 2040. This month’s package is meant to encourage vehicle design and modality shifts to make those targets attainable.

EU freight package: bigger trucks, smaller emissions

More than half of all freight in the EU is carried by trucks on the road, making it a big contributor to GHG emissions responsible for around 30% of road transport emissions. For safety reasons, manufacturers have been limited in terms of the size of the trucks they can make by the EU’s Weights and Dimensions Directive, which sets the maximum weight, length, width and height for heavy-duty vehicles.

The new proposal would adjust the directive to allow zero-emission trucks to be larger than those limitations. It would also allow those vehicles to carry more weight than standard trucks, since trucks’ electric batteries would be very heavy and otherwise mean they carry less. There would be additional incentives for designing vehicles with more aerodynamic cabins and other energy-saving devices.

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Acea, the European vehicle manufacturers association, has welcomed the Commission taking battery weight into consideration. “Zero-emission vehicles require more weight, axle load and space,” it said in a statement. “The revision of the Weights and Dimensions Directive could contribute to creating a level playing field with conventionally powered vehicles, an adjustment European truck and bus manufacturers have called for.”

However, ACEA would like to see the law go further in allowing for extra length. “This will only support the industry’s zero-emission transition if accompanied by increases in maximum axle loads [beyond the current proposal],” it said.

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ACEA also welcomed the Commission’s effort to create more clarity on “mega-lorries”, which have generated confusion at the EU’s internal borders. Some EU countries are using these extra-long trucks in “trials”, and since 2012, the Commission has allowed such trucks to cross borders between two member states conducting a trial. However, this was a temporary solution and the legality of the trials has been unclear. Under the new proposal, an official list of countries that allow such European Modular Systems (EMS) in their territories would be formalised.

However, the current wording could also limit cross-border trials to five-year periods, which has some in the industry worried. “It is paramount to maintain technology neutrality and avoid deadlines curtailing flexibility in the use of certain technologies,” said Raluca Marian, director of EU advocacy at the International Road Transport Union (IRU), which represents road freight operators, in a press statement. Climate campaigners have pointed out that mega-lorries allow more cargo to be carried in fewer trips, but safety campaigners say they pose a danger to cars and pedestrians.

The weights and dimensions proposal has been a rare area of agreement between ACEA and the NGO Transport & Environment. “The extra weight allowance will accelerate [zero-emission trucks’] roll-out by ensuring that no payload will be lost to accommodate batteries – and will make long-haul electric trucks more attractive to hauliers and shippers,” said Bernardo Galantini, T&E’s freight officer, in a statement.

However, while the NGO supports the effort to make EMS rules clearer, it does not want climate to become a convenient excuse for larger lorries. “Longer and heavier trucks can only be allowed to travel across borders if they are zero-emission, avoid urban roads and don’t compete with rail,” said Galantini. Any cross-border agreements for these lorries should include a requirement for them to be zero-emission by 2035, and a guarantee that they will not leave motorways, he said.

Shift to rail

The EU package's second proposal to curb freight emissions would change the way rail capacity is allocated. It is currently decided annually, nationally and manually, which the Commission says does not favour cross-border traffic. This fractured approach leads to delays at borders, which significantly affects the 50% of rail freight that crosses borders.

“Organising long-distance train travel means finding train paths which match two sides of a border,” explained EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean, who unveiled the proposal in at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. “Arranging this after the [national] infrastructure managers have already allocated most of the capacity to domestic trains is very difficult, and any capacity left is likely to be poor quality.”

“With this regulation, we will ask [national] infrastructure managers to plan use of capacity well in advance to coordinate the planning of cross-border paths,” she said. Rail operators would also be able to apply for cross-border capacity in a single place using interoperable IT tools. She added that the current system giving freight trains priority during the night will remain unaltered, and in fact be strengthened. “As much as we love night trains [for passengers], they stand second in line in terms of beneficiaries from this legislation. Our main focus is freight.”

Read more from this author: Dave Keating

The proposal would also allow trucks, trailers and semitrailers to carry extra weight and height if they are using a standardised cargo unit that is intended for intermodal transport using road, rail and waterways.

Only 11.9% of freight in the EU was carried by rail last year, even though freight makes up half of all rail journeys. Alberto Mazzola, executive director of the Community of European Railways, said in a statement that the proposal offers “real potential to accelerate modal shift”. However, he added that there is “a risk of reverse modal shift on the weights and dimensions file”. Any progress in reducing cross-border difficulties for rail freight could be counteracted by the other legislative proposal allowing for larger and heavier trucks on the road.

CountEmissionsEU

There is currently no standard framework for freight companies to calculate door-to-door emissions from deliveries, allowing shipping companies to make dubious claims about their environmental performance that are difficult to disprove. For this reason the Commission is also proposing the CountEmissionsEU regulation, which would introduce a mandatory framework for companies to use if they choose to publish their emissions or share them with business partners.

“Some companies already gather primary data on their emissions,” said Valean. “Others, especially smaller ones, can’t afford that. So we will not impose an extra cost on SMEs. Still, they need to be able to calculate their emissions if they wish to.”

The European Environment Agency, working with a project funded under Horizon Europe, the EU's flagship research and development programme, will build a database of standard emission values, to which relevant third-party data can be added once checked and verified by the agency. The Commission envisages eventual online emissions calculators. “While the formulas will be complicated the tool will be user-friendly,” said Valean.

The IRU’s Marian welcomed CountEmissionsEU, saying it will make it easier for road freight operators to operate “in a more economic and ecological manner”. She also welcomed that this disclosure will be voluntary under the Commission’s proposal, something some MEPs have expressed interest in changing as the file works its way through the European Parliament. “A voluntary approach enables adjustments and a gradual inclusion of more complexity to achieve a complete and accurate calculation tool,” she said.

The EU freight emissions proposals will now pass to the EU’s legislature, but it is unclear whether significant progress can be made before the European Parliament adjourns for campaigning ahead of next year’s EU election in June. There is also concern that this and other climate files could stall without Timmermans to push them through. It is unclear at this stage whether Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will replace Timmermans with a new executive vice-president for the Green Deal or leave the post empty for the rest of the term.

Editor's note: This story was updated after publication for the addition of data visuals on the EU's heavy-duty vehicle CO₂ standards.