It’s taken decades for the EU to get serious about its transport emissions problem. That it’s now doing so is in no small part due to William Todts and his team at Transport & Environment.
Todts might not be well known outside Brussels’ European Quarter, but when it comes to moving the needle on the myriad of arcane green rules underpinning the EU’s effort to address climate change, the organization he leads has become a major driving force.
From vehicle fuel efficiency standards to work on clean planes and ships, T&E has long been advocating for many of the policies that are now mainstream inside the European Commission.
The Fit for 55 package includes plans to tackle steadily rising emissions in the transport sector by mandating that airlines use sustainable fuels and that carmakers sell only clean vehicles from 2035. T&E has been pushing forms of those policies for years.
Where once Todts and T&E were dismissed by industry champions as green rabble-rousers, unconcerned with economic growth and jobs, they now find themselves on the winning side of big arguments.
The 2015 Dieselgate scandal was the gamechanger for T&E, says Todts. Not only did the EU miss a trick — it was U.S. investigators who discovered that Volskwagen had installed so-called defeat devices to cheat on emissions — the controversy underscored that European capitals had been going easy on the industry.
“This is when both the media and policymakers started coming to us and saying; ‘Please explain again what you told us last time,’” said Todts, a former Belgian civil servant who came on board with T&E in 2011. “All of a sudden we weren’t just a nutcase NGO.”
Todts, who took over as executive director in 2017, now steers an annual budget of around €12 million.
In T&E’s arsenal are two tools.
One is the open letter, which the NGO uses to push for specific policies, often drawing in corporate signatories. That provides a dollop of good PR to the likes of Ikea, Ryanair or Ford, while illustrating industry buy-in to the Commission.
The second is the expert study, either drafted in-house or by a consultancy, which sets out the policy implications of things like polluting cruise ships docking at city ports.
But with success has come renewed attack.
Some auto executives call the organization “Tesla & Environment” — an effort to discredit the NGO by suggesting (incorrectly) that it is funded by electric carmakers. The organization is financed by philanthropic organizations and wouldn’t take money from the industry, said Todts.
T&E has also attracted criticism for teaming up with the likes of Volkswagen, Uber and no frills airlines. Critics say T&E is picking favorites, but Todts says such projects are about recognizing companies making progress.
T&E has also expanded its lobbying work beyond the confines of air pollution to vehicle safety and battery materials. Todts has built out a network of staff in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland and the U.K. to head off national industry lobbies and advocate for change in slow-moving sectors like aviation and shipping.
“We’re making a lot of progress on transport, but the problem isn’t getting smaller,” said Todts.
What to look out for this year? Whether T&E can capitalize on the momentum around clean transport to secure a legal commitment to end the sale of polluting vehicles across the EU.
What’s their superpower? King of the open letter to the European Commission.
Influence score: 24/30