Directorate-General for Research & Innovation logo Horizon: the EU Research & Innovation magazine | European Commission logo
Receive our editor’s picks

R&D can steer transport sector towards green economy – Vice-President Šefčovič

Vice-President Sefcovic wants European car manufacturers to become sustainable leaders on a global level. Image credit: EC Audiovisual Service / Georges Boulougouris
Vice-President Sefcovic wants European car manufacturers to become sustainable leaders on a global level. Image credit: EC Audiovisual Service / Georges Boulougouris

Following recent vehicle emission scandals, confidence in sustainable mobility has taken a big hit. But research and development (R&D) could help the European transport sector get back on track and stay ahead of international competition, according to Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Energy Union.

Vice-President Šefčovič was speaking at the Transition to the Green Economy (T2gE) conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, which took place on 6 and 7 September and brought together policymakers, researchers, financial representatives and businesses to discuss how to create the conditions for an environmentally friendly economy across different sectors.

‘What we are communicating to the car industry (is that) if we want to remain global leaders and keep producing the best cars in the world, we need to make sure we stay ahead of our competitors in terms of R&D and innovation,’ he said.

The Issue

The green economy is an economic model that focuses on creating jobs and prosperity without harming the environment. Creating a resource-efficient Europe is a key part of the EU’s Europe 2020 growth strategy.

The idea is to improve sustainability across all sectors by preventing waste, managing water resources, and better production and consumption.

Innovation will also play a key role in developing the technologies that will make the green economy a reality.

His comments came in light of the European Commission’s ruling against Volkswagen which found the car manufacturer broke consumer laws in 20 countries after misleading the public on the emission levels of their engines.

While Vice-President Šefčovič said we need better ways to manage the car industry to ensure they contribute to the green economy, he went on to say that European manufacturers can still be sustainable leaders on a global level, if they support ambitious actions.

‘We need (manufacturers) to focus on the trends of the future, this would be electric cars, hybrid cars and automation.’

He went on to say that cities won’t want pollution in their centres in the future and will want to make sure that cars respect speed limits and rules.

‘It seems autonomous drivers will do this better than humans. The good thing is that the technology that is being developed in Europe can already do this, but we need to better implement coverage and develop research further.’

However, James Nix, director of the NGO Green Budget Europe, said that there are also some areas where the transport industry is under-developed in Europe.

‘When you talk about electric mobility we are looking at foreign firms, Tesla and Nissan Leaf. The single greatest problem for electric vehicles in Europe is the investment in lithium-ion batteries.’

These type of batteries are the key component for electric cars and trucks, but they are currently produced in America and Asia.

‘In the next 5 to 10 years Europe won’t have any lithium-ion battery plant and that’s a huge problem for Europe’s electric mobility industry,’ Mr Nix said.

Economic shift

Transport was just one of the sectors addressed at the conference, which also looked at what needs to be done to enable different markets to become more resource efficient while achieving growth. Some of the key issues under discussion were the role of financing and policy in encouraging the switch to a green economy, and the role of research and innovation.

‘The transition is not easy, one of the biggest barriers is we have a policy and legal framework wired to an older economic model,’ said Pier Vellinga, professor in climate change and water safety at the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. ‘This requires systematic change, not just for chemicals, agriculture, energy or water, it includes everything.’

‘If we do the transformation right, it could present a goldmine for jobs and growth in Europe.’

Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission

Prof. Vellinga said that for the green transition to be achieved, we need alignment at EU, national and local levels, and between the private and public sectors, to move towards the green economy.

‘We see examples of governments using some money and blend(ing) it with private money, that’s where we see real progress.’

The conference also heard that tried and tested methods are essential to ensure investments into the green economy pay off and that’s where research and innovation can play a key role.

In her keynote speech to the conference, the European Commission’s Deputy Director-General for Research and Innovation Ruxandra Draghia-Akli told the audience: ‘More than 50 % of the Horizon (2020) budget goes to demonstration projects providing evidence that green solutions work in practice.’

Sheng Fulai, Head of the Economic Research Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme, said that funders such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) can influence the success of the green economy by choosing research projects with a proven R&D track record and high growth potential.

‘Money is the blood for the transition to a green economy. We need money for transforming the current economy, to upgrade technologies, to improve production processes, to change our management styles. Money is also important for the transition to invest into emerging green sectors, solar, wind, energy efficiency technologies.

‘The issue is not so much if the money is there, the question is whether we are able to identify the projects,’ he said.

Increasing prosperity

Vice-President Šefčovič stressed that a green economy is not just about looking after our environment but also about increasing prosperity.

‘Today we have 9 million Europeans working in the low-carbon industry. With the Paris Agreement there will be another 9 million in this sector by 2030,’ he said, before highlighting the need to share risk with private investors so they aren’t afraid to invest in the green economy.

‘We need to tap into that private capital, we need to use the huge piles of cash idling in our banks to support investment into new fields of our economy.

‘If we do the transformation right, it could present a goldmine for jobs and growth in Europe.’

More info