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Why Can’t Europe Stop Combustion Cars?

“With electric means handing over to China. Forcing the whole continent to switch only to electric with no other solutions means handing over the economy to China and therefore with the Portuguese, Slovak, Romanian and Czech ministers we count on being majority to say that the ecological transition is fundamental but cannot be done with impositions, obligations and bans.”

On February 28, Matteo Salvini, the deputy prime minister and minister of Transport and Infrastructure, said this about the transition to electric cars. A few days later, on March 3, the EU Council postponed a vote on new vehicle emission standards, i.e., the rules under which only zero-emission vehicles can be registered in the European Union after 2035.

The vote was considered a formality since the regulation had already been agreed upon with the European Parliament and Commission. The postponement now risks jeopardizing the achievement of Europe’s target to combat climate change, to zero net CO2 emissions by 2050.

The Swedish presidency of the EU Council has decided to postpone until a later date the vote for final approval on the vehicle emission legislation. This is highly unusual, because, by this point in the legislative process, the regulation had already been approved by the council and parliament. Thus the states that make up the parliament had already given the green light to the legislation in question. The second passage through the council is usually considered a formality.

In this article, we will try to shed some light on what happened 😉

What was the legislation about?

The legislation sets standards on CO2 from vehicles for sale in the EU, a limit that the European Union periodically sets by lowering the threshold of allowable emissions from time to time. What is new in this case is that the threshold is being raised to zero, meaning that after 2035 a vehicle must not emit a single gram of CO2 to be registered. This means that only electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles will be allowed, and it would also mark the end of the combustion engine as we know it now.

Why did Germany decide to back out at the last moment?

Germany already during the negotiation phase had expressed its desire that combustion vehicles could continue to be registered as long as they were powered by synthetic fuel, also called e-fuel, which is made from carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere and hydrogen obtained from renewable sources, and therefore have net zero emissions because the co2 that is emitted is that which was removed from the atmosphere previously. The legislation does not provide for this possibility. Germany’s Minister of Transport and Digital Volker Wissing, who belongs to the Liberal Democrats (Fdp), decided to go toe-to-toe, taking advantage of the fact that Italy, Poland, and Bulgaria had already spoken out against it, and thus achieving the possibility of blowing up the qualified majority needed to pass the legislation. The council rather than go against a defeat decided to postpone the vote.

So would these synthetic fuels allow old cars to be used? But are they really viable alternatives?

According to many experts, no, it is not so sustainable, because even though the emissions are zero, the efficiency of these engines is much lower than that of electric motors. To travel the same amount of miles, a synthetic-fueled car consumes 5-6 times more energy than an electric car, considering all the processes it takes to produce synthetic fuels. Moreover, these fuels are still extremely scarce; there are very few, experimental plants producing them, and there are no expectations that they will reach a sufficient production threshold by 2035. Only 2% of the need could be reached.

E-fuels are considered a transitional technology that can help the decarbonization of some sectors such as heavy transport and aviation. But being so scarce, if they were used for private cars they would no longer be available for these other sectors.

But why then is Germany asking to keep the old cars using such an expensive and not sustainable fuel that is not widely available?

At first glance, one might think that the reason is the pressure from the automobile industry. In reality, automakers, including Germans, have already concluded that synthetic fuels are not the future and have set their sights firmly on electric cars. Most automakers have already declared that by 2030 they will sell only electric cars in Europe regardless of current regulations.

It is true that there are some companies such as Porsche and Bosch that have spoken out against the ban and hope to focus on synthetic fuels to maintain their current business, but they are a small minority compared to the total.

Although Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with the German government to push for a retreat, Scholz made it clear the next day that Berlin will not back down until the Commission comes up with a proposal to include synthetic fuels in the 2035 legislation.

The real reason seems to be the political difficulties of the Liberal Democratic party, which has lost many supporters in the last elections (and which governs together with the Social Democrats and the Greens) as well as minority partners, the one that is less attuned to coalition allies and has often found itself marginalized on the issue of energy traction. The Liberal Democratic Party by raising its voice and gaining visibility on this issue hopes to make inroads with Germans who view the abandonment of combustion engines with skepticism, and who are the vast majority of Germans, according to the latest polls 68% of the population, a huge electoral pool from which to fish.

Now that the European Union has postponed the vote, what will happen? How might the European transition path to the electric car resume?

In order to change the legislation and satisfy Germany, the legislative process of the legislation would have to be reopened, and this could open the door to major complications and would greatly lengthen the time. The hope is that a formal commitment from the commission not included in the regulation to consider allowing the sale of synthetic fuel vehicles might be enough. It has to be seen whether this will be enough to allow the Liberal Democratic Party to claim victory or whether it will decide to go to confrontation, which would mean carrying the adoption of this law indefinitely and abandoning it in its current form.

Those who oppose affirm that the conversion to electric will have huge costs in terms of jobs and could be a huge blow to the European economy, is that so?

Yes without a doubt it is, since the European automotive industry employs about 13 million people. There is no doubt that the shift to electric will disrupt the whole industry, it will nullify the competitive technological advantage accumulated over the years, and expose Europe to competition from China, which is far ahead in the development of the electric industry. In addition, electric cars are simpler to build because the electric motor is less complex than the combustion engine. According to the head of Ford, it would take 40 percent less work to build an electric car than a combustion car.

So, it is true that this shift may bring a net job loss that may be very large, but these jobs will be lost equally in the future, the shift to electric and the abandonment of combustion will be inevitable sooner or later. The longer one waits, the more substantial the advantage of China and other countries over Europe becomes.

Pressuring local authorities to provide more public transportation and create spaces for electric mobility is the best way to reduce dependence on cars.

The solution is to consider this breakthrough not just for the automotive sector but to write it into an overall transition to a European circular economy that also includes other related industries such as batteries, materials recycling, and such as that of an infrastructure that supports this whole apparatus of sustainable mobility. And in this can be found the possibilities of offsetting the loss of jobs, creating new ones that are even more secure in the future.

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