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Five questions for Jürgen Schultheis

What led you and motivated you to work in the mobility sector?

I was an editor at Frankfurter Rundschau for many years, and after my time as deputy head of department took over as transport writer. The expansion of Frankfurt Airport and the subsequent mediation process were among the most talked-about topics at the time. Against the backdrop of environmental issues and the impact of transport and climate change, I quickly became aware of the unfortunate fact that for many years the transport sector had contributed next to nothing to meeting internationally agreed and binding climate targets at global, European and national level. A look at the environmental impact and energy consumption then shifted the focus primarily onto road transport. Building cars with a fuel economy of 2 to 3 litres per 100 km was easily within reach years ago, but developments took a different turn. Cars are becoming heavier, more powerful and more expensive, and any extra fuel economy, however minor, which the internal combustion engine is still capable of achieving is nullified by the additional weight. At the same time, as a result of digitalisation particularly in the public transport sector, and together with multimodal and intermodal services, fascinating opportunities now exist for reducing traffic and improving mobility particularly in conurbations and for drastically minimising the environmental impact of traffic. That is why the mobility sector and the potential it has fascinate me more than ever.

Is it at all possible for Germany to embrace new forms of transport without being trapped by greenwashing? How can the transition take place in a sustainable manner?

That is not an easy question to answer because there are three issues at play. First of all, the transition to new forms of transport. Despite frequent claims of the transition being well under way I have my doubts. In Germany vehicle registrations have reached record levels, in some cases showing ownership of three cars. As mentioned above fuel economy has flatlined, averaging over 7 litres per 100 km, and the number of young people taking driving tests is rising again. Traffic volume, the product of individuals and kilometres driven, is not decreasing. On the other hand, more and more EVs are coming on the market. The number of people making use of carsharing services is growing, and the ’Deutschlandticket’, however poorly organised, is contributing measurably to the transition from cars to public transport – while not taking place on the scale some observers would like. In short, the conclusion one can draw is that the transition to new forms of transport has only just begun.

On the subject of greenwashing, the question is what criteria to apply, and on that issue defining sustainability is crucial. Adjectives such as smart, sustainable and climate-neutral have become so overused that in some instances they have become devoid of meaning. In that context, whenever a product’s resource/energy consumption or a performance is defined as sustainable, despite it proportionally overshooting the planet’s biophysical regenerative capacity, effectively depleting the Earth’s resources, that is greenwashing. An annual reminder of this is Earth Overshoot Day, which comes earlier each year. In 1971 Earth Overshoot Day was in late December, while this year the Earth’s capacity to regenerate its resources was exhausted on 2 August. In Germany, Earth Overshoot Day arrived in early May this year. If everyone manages their economy, consumes resources and lives the way we do in Germany we will soon need three planet Earths.

Some years ago, in an interview with the publisher Ulrich Gruber, the forestry science expert Georg Sperber said he believed that society had no idea what it was letting itself in for with the Rio Conference’s Sustainable Development Commitments, which effectively mean “fundamentally recalibrating our industrial society”.

Nevertheless, serious efforts to conduct business sustainably exist, and I have no qualms about mentioning Vaude as an example, a multiple award-winning supplier of outdoor equipment. However, companies like this can only succeed if customers honour their meaningful commitment by purchasing from them.

In the case of the transport sector that means using a minimum amount of resources and energy to transport a maximum number of people from A to B. That is the mantra of Cluster Mobility, of which I am head at the House of Logistics and Mobility. The yardstick for consuming the least amount of energy and resources possible is the planet’s capacity to regenerate. It is indeed possible to organise transport sustainably in a way that makes sense, but the energy required and the effort needed to convince people to achieve that goal is huge. And this is only the beginning.

Jürgen Schultheis

What role do buses play in the transition to new forms of transport?

Buses fit in perfectly with what I have just outlined. In terms of their economy and environmental impact buses are usually and in fact almost always better than any other mode of transport, providing they are full. Even at a conservative estimate, a battery-electric or fuel cell bus is a mode of transport that is very important for the transition to new forms of transport and with a view to meeting climate targets. Another aspect is this: when I talk about the future of mobility, naturally I can conjure up images of a perfect rail network and cycle paths stretching hundreds of kilometres. All of this is good and overdue, but faced with increasingly dynamic climate change and all its negative consequences we really need eco-friendlier transport right now. The current timespan for planning and realising rail projects is 30 to 40 years, and in this country even building fast bike lanes takes at least ten years. In the not too distant future, when driverless buses can be called up 24/7 and quantum computers calculate the best route, they will vastly improve the standard of public transport services in rural areas too. Our annual HOLM cluster conference under the heading ’The future of intelligent transport systems: quantum computing in aviation, logistics and mobility’ also deals with this topic. It is also worth noting that buses form an important part of an overall transport system with multimodal services organised through mobility hubs. Unfortunately they have a poor image, which is why good PR is needed to communicate all the benefits.

What role can environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) play in the context of the transition to new forms of transport, and how can companies ensure that their ESG practices are not just greenwashing or green marketing?

Like the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) and the Supply Chain Act, ESG is a set of guidelines for measuring sustainability beyond slick prose. The CSRD is subject to the EU Standard for Sustainability Reporting (ESRS), which comes into play wherever companies have more than 250 employees and turnover exceeds 40 million euros. The ESRS comes into force on 1 January 2024. The question as to whether or when transport sector SMEs will be subject to its reporting requirements is one I cannot yet answer.

Nevertheless, rules like these help added value in the transport sector take us in the direction of a climate-neutral future and ensure that we are on a sound footing. It is worth noting that the same rules applied to the climate legislation enacted by the previous federal government with its sector-specific targets for mitigating CO2.

Rules like these are also a response to both pressure within society in the face of climate change and a desire for certainty where investments are concerned, due to increasing risks resulting from climate change. You only have to ask insurance companies to see how in the face of current developments they are reassessing the risks customers want to insure.

Where ESG concerns the environment, strategies for mitigating the environmental impact, climate adaptation and reducing CO2 are measured and assessed in the same way as the transition to sustainable mobility and logistics. ESG directly impacts the key areas of the transition to new forms of transport. Anyone unable to fulfil these criteria in the medium term would have difficulty financing investments due to banks refusing them loans. Not least, within society pressure may grow to act more decisively against climate change, the Scientist Rebellion and Last Generation being just some examples of movements able to mobilise campaigns.

ESG is definitely a step forward because it makes greenwashing more difficult. Exploiting fossil fuels such as oil will subsequently no longer be possible. At the same time, having data collected and assessed for ESB reporting requires a substantial effort. SMEs, which usually include bus operators, will most likely have difficulty with this. I believe action is needed here.

In Germany there is a growing argument for being open to any technology where drive systems are concerned. What is your view? Does this mean companies become less or more competitive?

That depends on whether one looks at the idea from a science and technology-based viewpoint or from a political perspective. The goal is clear: to as far as possible remove carbon from the energy sources supplying our drive systems. That is also the criterion that should be applied to organising transport as efficiently as possible using a minimum amount of energy and resources. On that basis, the picture this paints is quite clear. In principle, the only viable energy storage options are batteries and fuel cells for cars and HGVs. The only way the internal combustion engine can possibly survive is if petrol and diesel are replaced by HVO, a diesel fuel made from bio-waste with significantly reduced CO2 emissions, which Deutsche Bahn is due to use. The same also applies to maritime traffic on inland waters and the seas. For flying, the alternatives are sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), also made from waste, or in the long term hydrogen.

Against this backdrop, being open to any technology means being open to new methods capable of mitigating CO2, reducing energy input, as far as possible making the most efficient use of the limited existence of “green“ energy, or exploring the use of new materials as substitutes for rare earths in batteries or electric motors, when until now we have been dependent on countries outside the EU. Wherever that succeeds, transport companies will gain a competitive advantage by being able to reduce their energy costs.

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