Transport & Environment — 2023-09-19
In 2022, a historic agreement was reached on ending sales of new polluting combustion engine cars by 2035 in the EU. In March this year, however, just before the final sign off by national governments in what had been considered a formality, the German government declared last-minute opposition. Backed by just three other countries (Italy, Bulgaria and Poland), the blocking minority demanded that sales of new cars with internal combustion engines (ICE) be allowed after 2035, if they run on e-fuels.
The basis of this opposition was the inclusion of a non-binding recital (Recital 11) in the new car CO₂ standards regulation that asks the Commission to propose a role for e-fuels – or CO₂ neutral fuels – in vehicles that are outside the scope of the regulation. An agreement was eventually found and the Commission agreed to make a proposal that would allow cars running only on climate neutral fuels to be registered under vehicle type approval rules, before setting out how these rules would be aligned with the car CO₂ standards.
Why using e-fuels in cars is a bad idea
T&E has previously set out why using synthetic e-fuels in cars is a bad idea (see both here and here) from both an environmental and economic perspective. Because producing e-fuels is such an energy intensive process, running a car on synthetic petrol is close to five times less efficient than powering a BEV through direct electrification. The overall efficiency of the direct electrification pathway is 77% whereas it is 16% for petrol cars powered with synthetic fuels, meaning over four fifths of the energy is lost along the way. This is an enormous waste of renewable energy, which is still a scarce resource and needed to decarbonise the rest of the economy.
Wasting limited e-fuels in new cars – the objective of the forthcoming provisions – will not only undermine efforts to decarbonise sectors that cannot rely on direct electrification such as shipping and aviation, but will also thwart efforts to clean up cars already on the road. Carbon-neutral fuels can be a limited contributor to the task of decarbonising the existing fleet. However, using them in new car registrations would actually increase emissions as there would be less or no e-petrol to decarbonise the existing car stock. It would result in an additional 135 bN litres of fossil petrol being burned between 2030 and 2050 that could have been saved if e-petrol was used exclusively in the existing fleet, resulting in an extra 320 MtCO₂e emissions by 2050.
Switching from importing conventional to synthetic fuels risks continuing Europe’s dependency on autocratic regimes, as with today’s oil. Carving out a loophole for e-fuels in cars also risks creating a Trojan Horse for continued use of fossil fuels and unsustainable biofuel use. As e-fuels are chemically similar to fossil and biofuels, both could still be used in e-fuel cars. As e-fuels will be much more expensive there would be a strong incentive for drivers to tamper and use regular fuel. Neither carmakers nor regulators can guarantee or control how cars are fueled over their lifetime.
How to prevent e-fuels undermining the car CO₂ standards
Crucially, if e-fuels are to be allowed to make a contribution towards Europe’s zero emission cars goal, they have to demonstrate the necessary climate credentials. When burnt in petrol or diesel cars, synthetic fuels release similar amounts of CO₂ (and air pollution) as fossil fuel. It is only by reducing GHG in their production that can make them climate neutral, i.e. balance the CO₂ emitted in combustion with the CO₂ in their production. This means that the hydrogen used to produce these e-fuels must come from 100% renewable sources, while the carbon molecules necessary to turn the hydrogen into the fuel should be captured from air (Direct Air Capture – DAC). This means that only a car powered exclusively with e-fuel that delivers a 100% CO₂ reduction can be exempt from the 2035 deadline to comply with the derogation as agreed in March by the European Parliament and member states.
Although T&E remains opposed to any use of e-fuels in cars, with the Commission’s stated aim to implement Recital 11 from the car CO₂ regulation, the following must be done to ensure the new rules are watertight and prevent the e-fuels loophole from undermining the EU car CO₂ law.
What fuels should be allowed and how the vehicles should be type approved
How should e-fuels be counted towards EU Car CO₂ standards?
In line with Recital 11 of the new car CO₂ standards, e-fuel cars should be limited to niche applications outside the scope of the regulation. The wording of Recital 11 states clearly that provisions for registering vehicles running on CO₂ should be “outside the scope of the fleet standards”. According to EU regulation this includes only special purpose vehicles such as ambulances, mobile cranes and military vehicles and so-called small scale manufacturers that only register less than 1,000 units of cars or vans in the EU per year.