Expert View: The energy transition requires changing how we travel

June 2023

By Diana Quiroz

The European Union is making significant investments in climate action, aiming to become the first climate-neutral block by 2050. In this context, decarbonising the energy and transport sectors is vital to achieving this goal. But the negative consequences of this transition on human and labour rights in the Global South are largely overlooked, particularly in terms of mining and producing crop-based biofuels. Culprit in this is not only the lax social sustainability criteria in the EU’s policies governing the energy transition across the energy and transport sectors, but also the failure to address how we travel.

Historically, Europe’s economic growth has gone hand in hand with an intensive use of energy and raw materials, thus increasing the pressure exerted by energy production and consumption on the environment and, consequently, on people. The energy transition is driven by the need to address those impacts, including concerns about climate change, air pollution, and energy security. Europe has been at the forefront of the global energy transition, actively pursuing renewable energy deployment and striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But Europe's renewable energy policies still need to adequately incorporate due diligence practices, which involve monitoring and evaluating the social and environmental risks associated with specific commodities or economic actors. This oversight has resulted in unintended incentives in developing countries like human rights abuses or environmental degradation going unchecked. As a result, governments, investors, and multinational corporations have exploited the increasing European demand for transition minerals and biofuels, leading to detrimental outcomes in certain cases.

Impacts of biofuels production

The EU relies on biofuels for road transport as a renewable energy solution to address the climate crisis and reduce dependence on fossil fuels from contentious regimes such as Russia. This approach is central to the Clean Energy for All Europeans package and the various iterations of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED I, II, and III), which set renewable energy targets for the energy and transport sectors. In implementing these policies, Europe’s consumption of first-generation biofuels (i.e., biofuels made from edible energy crops such as sugarcane, soy, palm oil, and rapeseed, among others) increased by almost 8% between 2018 and 2022.

A considerable share of these first-generation biofuels is imported from countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Malaysia, where producing these biofuels causes adverse effects on people and the environment. For example, a report published by Oxfam Belgium and researched by Profundo (March 2023) puts on the spotlight the impacts of cane sugar bioethanol produced for the European market in Brazil and Peru including greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric pollution, water overconsumption and pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, land grabbing, human and labour rights violations, and food insecurity.

Long shifts, unsafe working conditions, meagre wages

Likewise, increasing the overall share of renewables to at least 40% of the total energy mix is not only driving up Europe’s imports of wind turbines and solar panels, but also of the components and raw materials needed to produce these like copper, nickel, aluminium, cobalt and lithium. This increasing demand for transition minerals also comes with detrimental impacts on the environment and human and labour rights. A study conducted by Profundo and CNV Internationaal (March 2023) revealed that mining workers in Peru and Bolivia are required to work extremely long shifts to meet production goals. Moreover, mining workers in those countries face unsafe working conditions with insufficient workplace safety and health measures. Additionally, they face meagre wages and incidents of anti-union violence. This situation is aggravated by the rising trend of employing workers through temporary contracts via employment agencies, further diminishing their ability to safeguard their rights.

It is true that renewable energy is better for the environment, but achieving higher renewable energy targets is not the be-all-end-all solution to meet our climate targets. Much is said about the lack of ambition in the EU’s policies to set higher targets. In this context, the International Energy Agency claims that to enhance the proportion of renewable energy, EU member states must adopt and increase the production of biofuels, expedite the deployment of electric vehicles, and accelerate the progression of renewable electricity generation.

Harmful transportation

But even when biodiesel-fuelled and electric vehicles are a better option, compared to driving on fossil fuels, Europe’s use of passenger cars is moving in the wrong direction. For one, the number of passenger cars on EU roads has grown over the last five years, exceeding 250 million cars in 2023 (that is slightly more than one car for every two people). In this context, the use of heavier vehicles, like vans and SUVs is increasing too. The number of vans in the EU grew by almost 9% between 2017 and 2021. Likewise, the sales of SUVs have been steadily increasing since 2011, currently making up 49% of all vehicle sales in the EU. The problem with driving larger vehicles is that the larger the mass of the car, the larger the amount of energy that will be required to power it.

These trends are exacerbated by the unaffordability of public transport, while public transport requires much less energy per passenger kilometre. With the exception of countries like Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Malta and Spain that have introduced low-cost public transport tickets (in the case of Luxembourg, all forms of public transport are free throughout the entire country), the most sustainable forms of public transport are too expensive in many European countries. Against this background, it is not surprising that private passenger cars are still the dominant mode of transport in the EU, with less than 2 persons on average per car. At the same time, within the European Union, there is currently no value-added tax (VAT) imposed on cross-border airline tickets, and kerosene used for aeroplanes is also exempt from taxation. This situation effectively maintains a lower price for environmentally harmful transportation.

It goes without saying that transitioning from a carbon-based to a net-zero economy will require substantial changes in the infrastructure to generate, transmit, and store renewable energy. But the focus of the strategy should move past the need to secure the resources to achieve this material transformation and prioritise more circular solutions to letting more unsustainable forms of transport pay for their externalities and invest the proceeds in developing more and better public transport. More importantly, the strategy should urgently address how the EU’s relation to mobility stands in the way of a global just transition.

This expert view is written by Diana Quiroz, senior researcher at Profundo. For more information, please send an email to

(Photo: Red dot on Unsplash)

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