POLITICO — 2022-11-04
News from Brussels
The EU could still hit the brakes on its plan to phase out sales of polluting cars by 2035 if the market for electric vehicles doesn't take off in time, according to Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton.
In an interview with Brussels Playbook published Friday, Breton said the recently agreed law — a key part of the EU's plan to slash emissions by 55% by 2030 — could be reopened in 2026 to delay the phaseout date and allow the car industry more time to ramp up EV production.
“I said that it was very important that we have a review clause ... as soon as possible, so that we have the time to react if it is necessary — because evidently, we are talking about a gigantic changeover of an entire industrial sector, in the largest sense,” said Breton.
The planned review was brought forward to 2026 under pressure from big car-making countries. France has called for plug-in hybrids to be considered beyond 2035, while Germany has backed allowing combustion engines that run on e-fuels — the term for synthetic fuels manufactured with captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen.
Such changes would require a fundamental update to the agreed legislation, likely requiring broad agreement from diplomats and MEPs.
"We should approach that review date in 2026 with no taboos,” Breton added, pointing to a lack of charging infrastructure and a supply crunch in the raw materials needed to produce batteries as obstacles to a massive EV rollout.
EU negotiators reached a deal on the legislation — which sets a zero-emissions sales mandate for new cars and vans by 2035 — last month.
"The agreement ... sends a strong signal to industry and consumers: Europe is embracing the shift to zero-emission mobility," EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans said at the time.
But while many carmakers have committed to ditching combustion engine technology and are already making the shift to producing EVs, industry captains and those representing Europe's vast network of automotive suppliers have come out against the 2035 mandate.
Breton insisted he wants the switch from combustion engine to electric cars to succeed, and that he “completely agree[s] with this ambition” — but insists that cold realism is needed to achieve it.
Some “600,000 jobs will be destroyed” in the process, Breton said. “We are not just talking about the big car manufacturers — who will surely manage — but we are talking about the entire ecosystem and the production of electricity.”
To produce all those electric cars to replace traditional ones, “we will need 15 times more lithium by 2030, four times more cobalt, four times more graphite, three times more nickel,” Breton said. “So we will have an enormous consumption of raw materials, and we need to study all this.”
The French commissioner said his team will work up a set of criteria to assess whether the market for clean vehicles is taking off, presumably with the intention of using that to help inform debate during the 2026 review.
Echoing arguments made by the industry, Breton also pointed out that the rest of the world will keep using combustion engine vehicles "for many decades" and suggested carmakers could still serve those consumers with combustion engine technology. “I encourage EU companies to continue producing combustion engines — those that wish to do so,” he said.
The commissioner's internal market department is not in charge of the legislation banning combustion engine cars, which is overseen by the Commission's climate department led by Timmermans.
Breton's team has been drafting separate Euro 7 legislation setting new targets on non-CO2 emissions — such as toxic nitrogen oxides and the particles emitted by tires and brakes — set to be published on 9 November.
Those non-exhaust emissions "are very damaging to health" and will continue to be an issue even after 2035, as the problem also exists with EVs, Breton said.
According to a draft version of the Euro 7 text obtained by POLITICO, the Commission plans to go easy on the auto industry, partly in view of its commitment to stop selling engine-installed vehicles by 2035.