Less is More: Reducing Our Reliance on Fossil-fuelled Mobility Increases Consumer Choice.

By Monique Goyens, Director General, The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC)

Reconciling climate change with the founding elements of the consumer movement is not always easy. For decades, BEUC has fought to defend consumer choice and affordable products or services, but the threat of climate change is putting this narrative into question as we desperately need to reduce our consumption of certain goods and services brought to us by abundant energy sources like petrol.

Therefore, a central question for consumer organisations is how to reconcile the necessary transformation of our economy with consumer needs. It is about designing policies so that a more sustainable society improves consumer well-being. This is especially important for those who already struggle to make ends meet. As more prescriptive policies are designed to keep climate change manageable, these financially vulnerable consumers should not be left out while contributing less to climate change when compared to more affluent ones.

‘Less is more’ and the indispensable role of ambitious EU policies.

Market forces have largely failed to reduce emissions, change people’s transport modes, or to tackle transport poverty. This is even more true as demand for transport has increased, largely driven by the most polluting transport modes [1].

We argue that the transport sector should be redesigned so that ‘less is more’. By cutting our dependency on an individual-focused, fossil-fuelled mobility system, we can increase the number and the desirability of sustainable transport options available. By using resources efficiently – with electric cars where necessary and promoting other sustainable transport modes – we can reduce the burden of transport on household budgets.

History shows this cannot happen on its own, though: ambitious policies are essential to bring about both the environmental and socio-economic benefits of an energy-efficient transport system. Our “less is more” approach is not one that hits the pause button on regulation, unlike what car makers now propose. On the contrary, our vision addresses the barriers to the development of sustainable alternatives with an ambitious political agenda.

The Green Deal is certainly not yet a done deal.

The Green Deal initiated a profound technological change, especially for passenger transport. One striking example of the EU’s ambition for a clean transport system is the 2035 phase-out of the sale of new petrol or diesel cars. The deployment of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure is another. Consumers are slowly seeing a wider and, therefore, more affordable offer of EVs arriving on the market along with charging stations. As BEUC demonstrated [2], the potential of EVs to both cut emissions and help people save money is encouraging and already happening.

Although there are reasons to celebrate this historic turning point, it is not enough. This will not suffice to make our transport system a sustainable and efficient one. Reaching that goal means we have to go beyond automotive policy and a ‘technological approach’. 

A new political impetus is needed to break down further barriers and achieve a ‘less is more’ system. This is now a job for the next European Commission, but BEUC has plenty of ideas on what to do.

Accelerate the supply of affordable, efficient electric vehicles for those who need it.

In September 2023, EVs represented more than 20% of the new car sales in the EU. Month after month their market share increases, as companies and consumers – often helped by national incentives – are increasingly confident about their environmental and financial benefits.

Despite this positive picture, there are hurdles for consumers willing to buy an EV. Measures promoting the efficient use of energy, resources and alternatives to the current EV supply could help overcome these barriers. The EU could, for example:

  • Favour the production and purchase of low-consumption vehicles, especially those equipped with small- and medium-sized batteries. Cars are getting bigger and heavier, to the detriment of smaller vehicles that are affordable for middle-to-low-income consumers. With the share of highly polluting cars increasing, consumer choice in the small segments has plummeted over the years. As electrification is becoming the new norm, it is even more important to provide consumers with efficient vehicles at an affordable purchase price and reverse the current trend.
  • Measure lifecycle emissions and promote sustainably sourced batteries with a lower carbon footprint to incentivise both smaller batteries and vehicles produced in Europe. For instance, national subsidies and incentives in EU Member States could be linked to such sustainability criteria.
  • Impose more stringent electrification targets for company cars and leasing companies. This will fast-track the deployment of EVs on the second-hand market, where the offer is currently the smallest, but the financial benefits of EVs are the greatest.
  • Review the 24-year-old Car Labelling Directive and make real-life consumption data available so that consumers can compare car models with accurate information prior to purchase. The ability to compare cars based on their real-life consumption data would help consumers choose the most energy-efficient EVs.

The right price for the right transport option

Consumers react to price signals, be they positive or negative. But support for measures such as carbon pricing or a kerosene tax depends on these measures being coherent with others and on whether costs are distributed fairly between consumers and companies. 

We know from the past, like the yellow vests episode, that designing fair climate measures is essential to get consumers to support them, or at least not to oppose them. Policymakers should manage taxes and financial incentives to favour the most energy-efficient transport modes. This would be both a socially just and environment-friendly measure, as the less affluent consumers have the lowest carbon footprint. The EU could, for example:

  • Set up guidelines for EU Member States about fair price signals that promote sustainable transport options.
  • Make financial means available through the Just Transition Fund or the Social Climate Fund to support consumers who need it the most.
  • Closely monitor prices at public EV charging stations. These prices are not always transparent, and consumers sometimes end up paying very different prices depending on the payment method they use. Similarly, finding and comparing prices or knowing about the availability and operational status of public charging stations can be difficult. Addressing this is a game changer for those consumers who hesitate to switch to electric vehicles.

Bring rail on equal footing with cars and planes.

The number of passengers travelling by train has increased in the past 20 years, but so has the share of people travelling by air and by car. 

Therefore, one must question how much we use our cars and planes. The best way to do that is to make alternatives available and attractive. It also boosts choice for less affluent consumers, who rely on local public transport services or rail.

The EU could, for example:

  • Make rail more convenient by adopting a masterplan on rail that would put it high on the political agenda. The EU should push for ambitious measures such as the collective purchase of rolling stock, the creation of a framework for multimodal ticketing and booking, the coordination of train schedules, and better services in trains and stations. All this while encouraging national, regional, and local authorities to work together.
  • Swiftly adopt the Initiative on Better Protection of Passengers and their Rights by ensuring passengers are protected by core rights when they travel multimodal (including information, re-routing, care, and assistance). Clear liability rules should also be established when booking tickets via an online intermediary.

Time for a political strategy for transport

These policy options are some of the actions at the disposal of EU policymakers in the coming months and years. But as for the 2035 landmark, they require political vision and courage. An ambitious European Commission should carry this political strategy forward, with the clear aim of reconciling climate benefits and consumer well-being. “Less fossil-fuelled mobility, more sustainable alternatives” is what BEUC strives for.


European Environment Agency, “Decarbonising road transport- the role of vehicles, fuel and transport demand,” Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2022.


BEUC, “Affordable second-hand electric cars,” BEUC, 2022. [Online]. Available: www.beuc.eu/success-stories/affordable-second-hand-electric-cars. [Accessed January 10 2024].