Decarbonizing transportation in Italy

Discover strategies for decarbonizing transportation through electric vehicles, renewable energy, and sustainable solutions, aiming to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change

Decarbonizing mobility is one of the defining challenges of our time. It involves reducing, and ultimately eliminating, CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, which account for approximately a quarter of total emissions in Europe. To achieve a cleaner and more sustainable future, innovative technologies and effective policies are being harnessed to revolutionize the way we move. The race towards a zero-emission world has begun, and the success of this mission will shape our legacy for generations to come.

The real issue: how to decarbonize

In Italy, according to data from Asvis, over 30% of total energy consumption is attributed to the transport sector, which is heavily dependent on petroleum products (90.5% of the total), particularly diesel (59.8%) and gasoline (20%). Electricity contributes 2.7% to the sector’s final consumption (1.7% from fossil sources).
Nearly 90% of energy consumption is absorbed by road transport, followed by aviation (4.9% international, 1.1% domestic) and inland navigation (1.8%), while rail transport accounts for 1.5% of energy consumption. Rail transport is deemed the most energy-efficient, yet road transport still handles 90% of passenger movement (in millions of passenger kilometers) and 56% of freight (in millions of ton kilometers) with 90% of consumption.
A simple shift towards rail transport, especially for goods, clearly illustrates how energy efficiency and, consequently, decarbonization, could be significantly increased.
In this article, various key aspects of mobility decarbonization will be examined: the latest technological innovations, electric vehicles, biofuels, and hydrogen, which are redefining the foundations of sustainable transport. Subsequently, governmental policies and European initiatives aimed at promoting the transition to low-carbon transport modes will be discussed. Through this analysis, a comprehensive overview of the progress made and the strategies needed to achieve the vision of fully decarbonized mobility will be provided.

Zero-Emission Transportation: how to get here

The transportation sector is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, producing nearly eight cubic gigatons of CO2 globally. As previously mentioned, mobility in Italy also significantly impacts the country’s carbon footprint. In 2019 (the last pre-Covid year), the transportation sector was responsible for 25.2% of total greenhouse gas emissions and 30.7% of total CO2 emissions. A striking 92.6% of these emissions were attributed to road transport.


These figures alone convincingly highlight the critical importance of decarbonizing the sector. But there is another aspect to consider: from a certain perspective, it represents a strategy that can yield the best results with the least effort.
This point is well explained in the Decarbonization Report on Transportation by the Structure for the Ecological Transition of Mobility and Infrastructure of Mims, which states:
Vehicle decarbonization is one of the main factors to efficiently achieve the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030. The reason for this statement lies in the low energy efficiency (i.e., the low conversion of fuel energy in the tank to movement on the wheels) of current road transport vehicles, which, under operational conditions, show efficiencies ranging from 20% to 25% for cars and up to a maximum of 30% for long-distance trucks.
The replacement of less efficient and more polluting vehicles with zero-emission vehicles – typically battery electric cars – results in a substantial efficiency increase of around 300%. Each unit of energy from fossil fuels, when replaced by renewable electricity, requires the production of only 0.25-0.3 units of green energy. This leads to significant emission reductions and lower operating costs, similar to the replacement of gas boilers with high-efficiency heat pumps
“.

In other words, vehicle electrification leads to a drastic reduction in emissions with only a limited need for new renewable energy production.
It’s worth noting that Italy’s vehicle fleet, known to be outdated, totals 52.7 million vehicles. This includes 39.8 million cars, 7.2 million motorcycles, 3.7 million light commercial vehicles, 0.7 million heavy-duty trucks, 0.1 million buses, along with 0.2 million three-wheelers, and 0.9 million special vehicles. Over 99% of these vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines.

Low-impact mobility vehicles and technologies

Zero-emission transport encompasses a variety of technological solutions, from fully electric cars, which use batteries to store electricity, to hydrogen vehicles that produce power through fuel cells without harmful emissions.

Electric vehicles (EV)

The transition from fossil fuel-powered internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) to electric vehicles (EVs) is a key strategy for decarbonizing the transportation sector. Powered by rechargeable batteries, EVs emit no direct CO2 or other air pollutants at the tailpipe. These vehicles are revolutionizing the way we think about mobility, offering a cleaner solution that dramatically reduces harmful emissions in our cities.
Beyond the benefit of significantly contributing to the fight against urban air pollution, EVs, when powered by renewable sources, can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale, bringing us closer to international climate targets.
Despite the benefits, several challenges hinder the widespread adoption of EVs. The network of charging stations, for instance, remains insufficient in many areas, which can limit the attractiveness of these vehicles. Battery technology also raises several questions, ranging from efficiency concerns to environmental and social issues.
Electric vehicles currently include:

  • Electric cars
  • Electric buses
  • Electric bicycles
  • Electric scooters
  • Trains
  • Boats
  • Airplanes

Li-ion battery technology

Lithium, dubbed “white gold,” is experiencing a surge in demand due to its crucial role in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries. A 2022 analysis by McKinsey Battery Insights predicts that the entire Li-ion battery value chain, from extraction to recycling, could grow by over 30% annually between 2022 and 2030, reaching a value of over $400 billion and a market size of 4.7TWh. This burgeoning industry has also sparked geopolitical concerns regarding the control of lithium mines, largely concentrated in China. Europe accounts for only 1% of global lithium extraction, making the identification of potential domestic sources a strategic priority for the Italian government.
«The Phlegraean Fields and some areas of Lower Lazio have mud from which lithium can be extracted – Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto told Ansa. «The primary source of critical minerals in Italy is the recycling of WEEE. However, we also have some deposits, and Ispra is mapping the locations in the country where these raw materials can be extracted. Lithium for batteries, in particular, can be obtained from geothermal and geothermal-like sources».
Battery technology is undergoing rapid development, aiming to extend the range and lifespan of a single charge. Current batteries often provide limited range compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, and the time required to fully recharge batteries can be significant. Additionally, battery life can be affected by factors such as extreme temperatures and frequency of charging. Another aspect is the high cost of batteries, which contributes to making EVs more expensive than ICEVs.
The availability of charging stations is crucial for the practical use of EVs, especially for long -distance travel. In many regions, the charging infrastructure remains underdeveloped, which can create range anxiety for users who fear running out of charge away from a charging station. Installing additional charging stations requires substantial public and private investment.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles

On May 6th, Milan witnessed the first test drive of a fleet of Italian-made hydrogen vehicles, including a bus and two cars , on the streets of Mind Milano Innovation District (formerly Expo grounds). These vehicles, designed and built by the Umbrian company Rampini, showcase Italian excellence in a high-potential sector of sustainable mobility.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles, also known as fuel cell electric vehicles, represent a promising frontier in the quest for decarbonizing transportation. A chemical reaction involving hydrogen provides the electricity for these vehicles’ electric motors, resulting in the emission of only water vapor.
The widespread adoption of hydrogen vehicles is currently hindered by the scarcity of refueling infrastructure and the high costs associated with vehicle and hydrogen production, especially when produced in eco-friendly ways. Green hydrogen, produced using renewable energy sources, is the only type that makes sense in terms of decarbonization, as it would be carbon-neutral itself. However, the current production of hydrogen still relies heavily on fossil fuels.
Despite the challenges, the sector is experiencing experimentation, particularly in applications such as heavy-duty transport and urban buses where long ranges and rapid refueling times are advantageous. Governments and industries are making significant investments to improve accessibility and reduce costs, pushing for an increase in hydrogen refueling stations and the production of green hydrogen.

Biofuels

Biofuels derived from biological raw materials is being investigated in certain sectors. Such biofuels can be employed in conventional engines, offering a carbon balance that is ideally superior to that of fossil fuels. They exist in liquid or gaseous forms and can be categorized into three main types:

  • Bioethanol: the most widespread biofuel and is primarily produced by fermenting sugars extracted from crops such as corn, sugarcane, and sorghum. It is used in blends with gasoline to fuel vehicles;

  • Biodiesel: produced from vegetable oils or animal fats through a process known as transesterification and can be used in diesel engines without significant modifications, often blended with petroleum-derived diesel;

  • Biogas: derived from the anaerobic decomposition of organic material such as agricultural residues, manure, and urban waste. Biogas can be purified to become biomethane, which can be used as a vehicle fuel or for electricity production.


In the coming years, a reduction in the production of sustainable biofuels from dedicated crops and the growth of advanced biofuels and waste-based biofuels in double counting are expected under European regulations. Conversely, a significant growth of biogas and new advanced biofuels for aviation and maritime transport is foreseen.

Synthetic fuels, also known as e-fuels, are a form of fuel artificially produced using energy from renewable sources to convert raw materials such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) into liquid or gaseous hydrocarbons. Currently, they do not have a technological development level close to commercialization and also exhibit suboptimal energy efficiencies and costs, suggesting a future use particularly in the aviation and maritime sectors.

Decarbonizing the aviation industry

In November 2023, Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 flight took off from London Heathrow bound for New York’s J.F. Kennedy Airport, marking the groundbreaking first transatlantic journey showcasing the viability of using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) over such a vast distance. The result was a 95-CO2-ton saving, a significant step towards safeguarding our planet.
Decarbonization presents a pivotal challenge for airlines and airport operators today, with SAF fuel emerging as one of the most promising solutions, potentially capable of reducing emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional fuels.

A recent study by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti on the Italian aviation industry highlighted the importance of investments and identified various strategies to steer airports towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Among the proposals are expanding air network connectivity, intensifying efforts in research and development of sustainable fuels and alternative propulsion systems, along with promoting digitalization and ecological transition. A supportive regulatory framework is expected to drive investments in innovative technologies, with a revision of the National Airport Plan to further focus efforts on sustainability and digitalization.
The real breakthrough could stem from SAF: unlike other alternatives, these fuels boast the “drop-in” feature, allowing them to be used without requiring aircraft modifications. Currently, SAF fuels stand out as the sole available technology enabling almost zero-emission flights by 2050, making them crucial for long-haul flights.
However, the main obstacle remains their high cost, posing a significant barrier to widespread adoption. While SAF production currently represents just 0.1% of total fuels, there has been a remarkable acceleration in recent years, providing bright hopes for the future of sustainability in the aviation sector.

Decarbonizing the maritime industry

International maritime traffic accounted for about 3% of global CO2 emissions in 2022. However, 90% of goods traded in the globalized economy are transported across oceans and seas. In addition to its role in personal mobility. The maritime industry is therefore a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to the use of fossil fuels such as oil to power ships. The International Maritime Organization’s greenhouse gas emissions strategy aims to achieve net zero by 2050. The maritime sector is among those considered ‘hard-to-abate‘, meaning that decarbonization is very difficult. There are several reasons for this:

  • Lack of valid sustainable/cleaner fuels
  • Low demand for green ships
  • Slow development of resources and infrastructure
  • Uncertainties in regulations
  • Too many stakeholders (For a specific shipment, the parties involved range from the goods owner (shipper) to the shipowner, the shipping agent, the freight forwarder, and finally, the customer. Who is responsible for carbon emissions?)

Decarbonization in the maritime industry calls for, perhaps more than in other sectors, innovative forms of collaboration between different players and the production of new green ships. This is all the more important, considering that 85% of emissions come from a specific category of ships: deep-sea vessels.

Climate action initiatives in maritime transport

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a historic United Nations organization that adopted an initial strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships in 2018. Through this initial strategy, IMO Member States committed to (i) reducing annual greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least half by 2025, compared to their 2008 level; and (ii) working towards phasing out greenhouse gas emissions from shipping. The Zero Emission Maritime Buyers Alliance (ZEMBA) stands as the initial maritime sector buyer group. Their mission involves hastening the commercial spread of zero-emission transport solutions (ZE), fostering economies of scale for purchasers and goods providers, and aiding shipowners to fully exploit emission reduction potentials. ZEMBA is an initiative of Cargo Owners for Zero Emission Vessels (coZEV) and is facilitated by the Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program.
At COP27 in 2022, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry unveiled the Green Shipping Challenge. This initiative aims to motivate nations, ports, companies, and all players in the maritime shipping value chain to commit to specific actions by introducing emission reduction measures within the sector.
The First Movers Coalition (FMC), which is not exclusive to maritime shipping but works heavily on the topic, was born in the World Economic Forum. It has evolved into the largest private sector growth driver for burgeoning climate technologies.

The role of the Digital

According to a McKinsey analysis, to dramatically cut their emissions, automotive companies worldwide need to invest over $1 trillion in eco-friendly transportation by 2030, but more can be done. Progress will require strategic collaboration among businesses, sectors, governments, and communities, with a willingness to build and adopt new technologies at scale.
The outcome of properly targeted digitalization within the industry could result in cutting greenhouse gas emissions by up to 5% by 2050. For instance, technologies like IoT, imaging, and geo-location can be harnessed to gather real-time data and drive the system’s decision-making process. Ultimately, this would enhance route optimization and decrease emissions in both rail and road transport.
Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platforms, increasingly advanced mobility planning tools for consumers, by encouraging a full range of low-carbon options such as e-bikes, scooters or transit, are considered to actually reduce emissions by more than 50 %, should MaaS replace personal car use.

Policies & Strategies

International agreements endorsed by the European Union (EU) through the 2015 Paris Agreement have led to the establishment of a European climate law. This legislation mandates a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the EU by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and aims to achieve “carbon neutrality,” meaning net-zero emissions, by 2050.
To achieve these goals, various sectoral proposals have been introduced by the European Commission (EC) starting from July 2021, some of which seek to promote sustainable mobility with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality, and making transport systems more efficient and inclusive. Here is a summary of the key initiatives:

European Green Deal: the European Green Deal is the EU’s action plan to make its economy sustainable. Among its objectives, it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Sustainable mobility is a crucial pillar of this strategy, with specific investments in clean transport and green infrastructure.

Fit for 55: within the framework of the Green Deal, the “Fit for 55” package proposes specific legislative measures to ensure that EU policies align with the 55% CO2 emissions reduction target. It includes proposals to strengthen the emissions trading system (ETS), increase the use of renewable energy, and enhance the energy efficiency of vehicles.

Mobility Strategy: published in 2020, this strategy sets the framework for EU mobility up to 2050. It includes plans to reduce emissions from all modes of transport, boost innovation and adoption of clean technologies, and ensure a fair transition for all citizens.

Urban Mobility Initiatives: the European Commission supports the development of sustainable urban mobility plans in cities, encouraging the use of public transportation, cycling, and walking, as well as the transition to zero or low-emission public transport fleets.

Regulations on CO2 for cars and vans: the EU has established stringent standards for emissions from new cars and light commercial vehicles, setting CO2 emission limits that will become increasingly stringent over the years.

Incentives for zero and low-emission vehicles: Through several directives and regulations, the EU promotes the adoption of electric and hydrogen vehicles, offering tax incentives and funding for the construction of charging and refueling infrastructure.

These initiatives are underpinned by significant funding through various EU funds, such as the PNRR, the Just Transition Fund, and the Horizon Europe program, which help finance research and innovation in the field of sustainable transport. The European Union is decisively moving towards a cleaner, safer, and more accessible mobility system, with the ambition to become a global leader in reducing the environmental impact of transportation.

In conclusion, the path toward decarbonizing transportation transcends its climate imperative, aligning profoundly with the overarching ethos of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Embracing a holistic perspective is the key to addressing a multitude of challenges beyond greenhouse gas reduction. By enhancing transport safety and accessibility, minimizing local pollution for improved health, easing traffic congestion, ensuring energy security, fostering connectivity, supporting industrial growth, promoting economic prosperity, enhancing social equity, and creating avenues for meaningful employment, we pave the way for a brighter, more sustainable future filled with opportunities for all. Achieving the ambitious global goals hinges crucially on fostering an integrated and collaborative vision, with decarbonization standing out as an inescapable cornerstone for paving the way towards a sustainable future.

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