Transport accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions worldwide and up to 41% in France. Out of worldwide CO2 emissions from transport, the vast majority (approximately 75%) comes from road transport of freight and passengers. Then come aviation and shipping, and finally rail. Worse still, if current trends continue, transport emissions are expected to increase by 60% by 2050. Yet to meet the Paris Agreement goals, freight emissions would have to fall by 45% and passenger emissions by 70%.
There is an urgent need to take action to decarbonise transport, and engineering has its role to play.
Many initiatives are under way in the automotive, aviation and rail sectors, to which Egis contributes fully. But I have chosen to focus more specifically on inland navigation, in particular the construction of the Seine-Nord-Europe Canal.
Inland navigation currently accounts for only 2% of goods movements in France, yet a single wide-beam barge can transport the equivalent of 200 HGVs and, according to ADEME, inland navigation emits two to four times less CO2 than road transport over a comparable distance. It is therefore a major asset for the decarbonisation of freight, which should be supported and developed.
The new wave of inland navigation
There is nothing new about the development of inland navigation: in Antiquity, the Egyptians and Romans transported stones and wine by boat, before inland navigation experienced unprecedented growth in the 19th century due to the boom in the transport of coal. This was the time of “Canal Mania”, with the canal network expanding fourfold in just a few decades.
After a period of inactivity at the beginning of the 20th century, the environmental advantages of inland navigation gave it a second breath of life in the 1980s. Under the impetus of the French prime minister at the time, Michel Rocard, a public establishment, Voies Navigables de France, was created in 1990 to structure the development of inland waterway transport.
The Seine-Nord Europe canal: a solution to relieve congestion on the A1 motorway?
It was also at this time that the idea resurfaced for a canal linking the river Seine and the Dunkirk-Scheldt Canal, capable of accommodating 3000 metric ton barges. This was one of the tasks given to Voies Navigables de France: to complete the network of broad-gauge canals in France.
This Seine-Nord Europe canal, for which Egis and its partners are project managers for ¾ of its length, is a formidable tool for accelerating the decarbonisation of goods transport. It should encourage a shift from fossil-fuel transport (especially road transport) to lower-carbon transport, while relieving congestion on the A1 motorway between Paris and Lille.
Broadening the scope of eco-design
With 6 locks and 61 road and rail bridges, this 107 km long and 54 m wide infrastructure is unique in France. Above all, it is a perfect illustration of the role engineers can play in protecting the environment.
This structure is eco-designed from start to finish: in other words, at each stage of the project, from its construction to its operation, the teams question its impact on the environment and implement solutions to reduce this impact.
The aim is to ask the right questions at the design stage of a project, for example by filling the canal from the river Oise and not from the water table. It also means offsetting the environmental impact inherent in the construction phase, by preserving AND restoring biodiversity around the canal.
Of course, the construction of the Seine-Nord Europe Canal will not solve all the problems linked to CO2 emissions from transport. But it is a step in the right direction, making best use of complementary modes of transport. Being slower, inland navigation is less suited to passenger transport. But its development must go hand in hand with planning of other types of environmentally friendly transport, such as rail, with the increase in the number of high-speed lines.
We need to change our way of thinking and stop considering the problems of passenger transport, goods transport, energy and the environment in isolation. It is essential to consider solutions that incorporate all these issues from the outset. It is true that this requires significant resources, but the socio-economic balance will always remain favourable. The climate emergency does not allow us to wait any longer.