Tackling climate change has become a primary issue in today's society, as governments across the world urge industry and individuals to consume less energy for reasons both economic and ecological. Carbon emission targets are in place – and the dangers of not meeting them are frequently cited.
The transport sector, in particular, has a key role to play in the energy revolution. It is already responsible for 27 per cent of the world's carbon emissions and it is the only sector that has seen emissions grow steadily since 1990. As things stand, the transport industry alone risks jeopardising the EU's commitment to cut carbon emissions by a quarter by 2050. So we need to act quickly and we need to act differently.
To date, much of the focus has been on individuals. Consumers are encouraged to use cars less and use other modes of transport – buses, trains, even bicycles – more. But people are only half the problem. An equally – and perhaps even more important issue – is freight.
Freight is the heavy duty side of transport – food, chemicals, construction materials being shunted across countries, across borders and across continents. Often forgotten by the consumer, freight is a huge part of the transport industry, accounting for well over half of all road traffic. In Europe alone, around 1.5 billion tonnes of goods are transported by road each year and, over the past decade, the amount of road haulage has continued to increase substantially.
Pragmatism would suggest that we cannot curtail this industry. Free movement of goods and people is non-negotiable in this day and age. What we do need, however, is to develop more ecologically friendly methods of transporting ourselves and our goods. Logically, public transport should cause less damage to the environment than private transport. But recent experience shows that public transport can only play a significant role in the energy revolution if it undergoes a revolution of its own.
The seeds of change are already in place. Trams have been introduced in many European cities to encourage inner-city public transport and high-speed trains have transformed travel across Europe. Between London and Paris, Amsterdam and Munich, Geneva and Bordeaux, there are fewer planes and cars and more trains. And people really are changing the way they move around our cities.
But, if passengers can do it, so should freight. Even one freight train can replace 50 lorries on the roads and every tonne of freight carried by rail produces at least 80 per cent less carbon dioxide than if it was moved by road. Yet in Britain, freight road trips rose by 38 per cent in the 1990s alone while air freight grew by 7 per cent. More than 60 per cent of all goods are transported by road, compared to just 7 per cent by rail.
There are many reasons for this, not least underinvestment in suitable networks and terminals. But inertia is no longer an option. Freight transport is now an urgent and absolute priority. Over the next eight years, we need to take a million trucks off the road, reduce congestion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To make this happen requires investment, ingenuity and innovation. At SNCF, for example, we are investing €1bn (£923m) in eco-friendly freight transport. This follows a decision by the French government to invest €7bn in a rail network dedicated specifically to freight. Their commitment is unprecedented, unparalleled and much needed.
But to maximise the potential of this cash injection, further capital is needed from governments and the private sector across Europe. We need to work together to make rail an attractive option for freight transport. That means improving the integration of sea and rail systems, creating modern port facilities, putting lorry containers on trains and, above all, developing high-speed freight networks so goods can be transported rapidly and efficiently around the EU.
Admittedly, this is a long-term vision but we need to start acting now. And we are. By December, SNCF will have created two railway ports at Le Havre and La Rochelle, doubled rail traffic between the South of France and Luxembourg and formed a consortium to launch high-speed freight.
Over the next five years, we intend to create four rail "highways", transferring half a million trucks from road to rail in the process. There is also the option of creating a mixed-use rail highway between London and Turin in 2013.
Estimates in the UK suggest that a national high-speed rail network could ultimately reduce carbon emissions by one million tonnes a year – if the whole of Europe adopted high-speed rail, the impact would be extraordinary – for passengers, for companies, and for the planet.
SNCF took France from Corail trains to the TGV in less than three decades. In so doing, the daily lives of millions of people were transformed. It is time to do the same for freight, in France, in the UK and in Europe.
The freight industry is as conscious of the need for change as anyone – but it needs to know that transportation can be as effective by rail as it is by sea and air. Ease of use is paramount. Decent infrastructure, fast trains and well-run systems will make change happen.
The financial costs may seem high right now. But the costs of delay are even higher. We need to take freight off the roads, out of the air and on to the railways. And we need to start work right here, right now.
Guillaume Pepy is SNCF chairman