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Shifting to sustainable transportation in Italy: social and economic consequences

Rome, 12/09/2018, National Roundtable
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The participants at this roundtable noted that there is practically unanimous consensus on the need to rise to the challenge of achieving eco-sustainable mobility, a necessary objective in order to meet the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C. The issue was viewed as one primarily concerning the health of both the present generation and the next. In 2016, the transport sector became the largest source of CO2 emissions, and, according to estimates by the European Environmental Agency, more than 85% of the population has been exposed to concentrations of air pollutants exceeding the limits set by the World Health Organization's air quality guidelines for particulate matter (PM2.5).

In addition, it was highlighted that the European Union currently imports 89% of its crude oil, the vast bulk of which is used for transport. This circumstance inevitably exposes the economy to volatility in global crude oil prices and to geopolitical dependence on oil-producing countries.

Yet while there is wide support for the objective of eco-sustainable mobility, the strategies for achieving it are the subject of debate and the interests and obligations of the various actors are hard to reconcile.

Turning to consider the first of the three affected stakeholder groups, namely, the general public, it was felt that efforts are needed to pique the interest of users in acquiring eco-sustainable means of transport and in adopting new mobility usage behaviors (for instance, car-sharing and car-pooling). If this transition is to be accomplished within the next 20-30 years, then it is not only a matter of enticing current consumers with financial incentives, but also of raising the awareness of future consumers – through the education system – of the importance of eco-sustainable choices and behaviors.

Identified as the second key player was the mode of production called upon to create the means – whether public or private – of eco-sustainable mobility. This was seen as extending not just to car manufacturers, but also to allied industries, thus making it crucial to rethink production systems, investment, and human resources.

The third player cited was the public sector, at both the central and local levels, which it was urged needs to employ consistent and lasting choices and policies. Many participants expressed a hope that a plan might be developed that is not only endorsed by the various levels of the public administration, but which also clearly provides for public-private partnership.

Drawing on data from a study entitled "Fuelling Italy's Future", conducted by the European Climate Foundation, Cambridge Econometrics, Transport and Environment, and the Enel Foundation, the participants addressed the various issues and viable strategic options.

It was noted that while resolutions at the European level on the reduction of CO2 emissions are clear and focus decisively on the end goal, there remains the problem of how to translate such directives into policy choices and into an ability to increase investment in the field of eco-sustainable mobility. The risk inherent in this disconnect is that there will be a widening of the divide between the EU, the US, and China, with the latter two countries supporting their automotive sectors with ad-hoc laws and initiatives.

At this point in the discussions, it was acknowledged that an important role is undoubtedly played by tax policies, as demonstrated by the initiatives adopted in several European countries, as well as by the ability to design and build the infrastructure necessary for eco-sustainable mobility.

According to a number of participants, the chosen approach to the transition should not take as read that vehicles will continue to be like those currently used, but should instead start by analyzing actual distances and usage, especially as it would seem that the cars of the future will be zero-emission models. In the case of urban transport, where short distances are the norm, smaller vehicles should be used, relying not on recharging stations but on sites where flat batteries can be exchanged for charged ones. This would result in shorter vehicle downtimes and better management of recharging peaks.

Furthermore, it was emphasized that battery design should not concentrate solely on capacity and recharging speed – the two aspects which research efforts have focused on – but also the need (at the design stage) to adopt technologies aimed at better managing the recycling and disposal of spent batteries.

Whilst the future of eco-sustainable mobility would appear, at least from a technological standpoint, to be drawing closer thanks to vehicle models in advanced stages of trialing that are well-powered, driverless, and affordable, there remains the issue of how to mitigate the economic and social costs of this development. Green and self-driving cars, new ways of ensuring mobility, and probably new forms of logistics will lead to reductions in the production of means of transport and, hence, to less employment. Even though some maintained that those left jobless could be redeployed in new sectors, this was recognized as a very serious problem that could affect the speed of transition. Moreover, the problems posed by those countries with economies heavily shaped by the availability of fossil resources will need to be taken into account at a global level.

Given this scenario, it was stressed that Italy will unquestionably have to make up for lost ground in the fields of hybrid-drive systems, zero-emission cars, and car sharing, as well as upgrading its public transport fleet composed largely of aging and highly-polluting vehicles. Only in this way will it be able to seize important opportunities for its production system from the transition underway, bearing in mind that a dramatic reduction in pollution would also make the country’s natural and artistic splendors even more enticing.