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EU road to ditch fossil fuel cars by 2035 is full of potholes 

All new cars on the European market must be zero-emission vehicles from 2035, says the European Commission in its ‘Fit for 55’ package, but questions over affordability and infrastructure are proving difficult to answer. 

When the European Commission announced a mammoth package of climate legislation last week to get the EU to its recently upwardly revised target of a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, the envisioned ‘ban’ on internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles from 2035 garnered much media attention. 

The Commission insists it is not banning anything but rather requiring that all new vehicles sold from that date be zero emissions – with an interim target of reducing emissions from new cars by 55% by 2030. However, with existing technology constraints, this de facto means no more ICE vehicles. Innovation in alternative fuels could theoretically allow existing ICE vehicles to be powered by fully renewable fuels in the future, but for now electric vehicles (EVs) are the only mainstream option to produce no emissions on the road.  

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans unveils the European Climate Law. (Photo by John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

New EVs are, however, financially out of reach for most people and they make up an infinitesimal portion of the second-hand car market. Moreover many people who could potentially afford an EV remain wary because of a lack of charging infrastructure. 

The looming 2035 deadline will provide the push to solve both these problems, believes the Commission. It will force car manufacturers to produce more affordable EVs, and governments and utilities to get serious about building the infrastructure needed to charge them.  

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Low starting point

Zero-emission cars and lorries are already a reality, but so is the lack of infrastructure to recharge or refuel them,” said EU transport commissioner Adina Valean when unveiling the ‘Fit for 55’ package in Brussels. We want charging capacity equivalent to around 16.3 million points by 2050.” The proposal envisages recharging stations every 60km along motorways. “You don’t buy a phone if you can’t charge it [and] you don’t buy a car if you can’t charge it,” she said. 

The Commission’s proposal “requires a massive further increase in market demand for electric vehicles in a short timeframe”, says Oliver Zipse, president of the European automotive industry association ACEA and CEO of BMW. “Without significantly increased efforts by all stakeholders – including member states and all involved sectors – the proposed target is simply not viable.”  

At the same time, Zipse says the interim targets are not ambitious enough. “On a first view, ACEA is concerned the targets fall far short of what is required, with a worrying reference to just 3.5 million charging points by 2030,” he comments. “According to recent Commission calculations, a further decrease of car CO2 emissions to minus 50% in 2030 would require some six million publicly available charging points.” 

Push and pull factors

Climate campaigners have long accused the car industry of using a lack of infrastructure as an excuse not to build EVs and say tough legislation is needed to force them to act. Campaigners highlight how companies have ramped up EV production just before average fleet CO2 standards have come into effect over recent years. Nine EU automakers have already announced they will go fully electric by 2035 or earlier, including Volvo (2030) and Volkswagen (2033–35).

The Commission proposal “is a turning point for the auto industry and good news for drivers”, says William Todts, executive director of the NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). “The new rules will democratise electric cars and give a major boost to charging, meaning clean cars will soon be affordable and easy to charge for millions of Europeans. The problem is carmakers will only have to start selling those cleaner cars in 2030.” 

Monique Goyens, director of European consumers organisation BEUC, agrees. “The decision to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2035 is the type of clear signal that carmakers need to accelerate the fleet innovation work,” she says.  

When fuel costs are taken into account, electric cars are already the cheapest option for consumers, but people are not being given the incentives needed to compensate for higher upfront costs, she says. 

“Especially people buying second-hand cars can save money by going electric, as they face less of the car’s depreciation and running costs are particularly low,” says Goyens. “CO2 targets nudge carmakers to innovate and place more electric cars on the road.” 

All eggs in the electric basket

However, relying entirely on electrification to get the EU to its transport goals is a mistake, claims Zipse. All options, including efficient ICE vehicles using low-carbon fuels, hybrids, battery electric and hydrogen vehicles, should be part of the future car mix, he says.

Under the Commission proposal, the sale of hybrids would also be banned by 2035 because they partially use fossil fuels. European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans has called hybrids a transition technology. A lifecycle analysis from the Commission found that hybrids emitted an average of 208g/km in 2020, while fully petrol cars emitted 269g/km and battery electric vehicles emitted 120g/km. 

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Zipse is urging the European Parliament and national governments, as they scrutinise and adjust the proposal in the coming months, to “focus on innovation rather than mandating, or effectively banning, a specific technology”. 

If low-carbon fuels are not developed for legacy ICE vehicles still on the road well after 2035, they will continue polluting. Timmermans, who is in charge of the EU Green Deal, said he is aware of these concerns, but insisted the increased price at the pump resulting from a new emissions trading system for road transport and buildings should partly solve this issues.

“That is why we need the ETS system,” he said. “You have to stimulate removing the most polluting vehicles from the market.” Changes to the energy taxation directive in the ‘Fit for 55’ package will also further incentivise people away from ICE vehicles, suggests the Commission.

No end-of-life plans

Another big question is what happens to the old ICE vehicles that are pushed out of the market given the 'Fit for 55' package does not contain any new end-of-life plans for these vehicles.

T&E says such concerns should not be used as an excuse to slow the transition to EVs. "It is important to stress that the EU proposals are only about new sales – they do not ban or restrict the circulation of vehicles already on the road," says the NGO. "Also, more and more people are retrofitting old cars with electric motors, and soon a vibrant second-hand EV market will make the switchover of the existing fleet faster."

However, since the second-hand market remains underdeveloped and vulnerable segments of society can often only afford used cars, social support networks are likely to be needed if an inclusive, just transition is to be assured.

Hydrogen options

The Commission’s proposal envisions hydrogen-powered vehicles as a future possibility, although it is unclear for which types of vehicles it sees hydrogen as a potential fit. There is deep scepticism about the viability of hydrogen for passenger cars because of the extensive infrastructure needed and potential dangers around refuelling. Even for trucks there is much uncertainty about whether it could ever work because of the huge infrastructure challenge.

However, hydrogen should not be ruled out, even for passenger cars, as carmakers "are increasingly developing fuel cells that are smaller and lighter", said Timmermans last week. He envisions a future with a combination of electric and fuel cell hydrogen vehicles on the roads. 

The objective is to have hydrogen refuelling points every 150km along major highways, said commissioner Valean. At the end of 2020, however, there were only 125 hydrogen stations in the entire EU, serving a fleet of just 2,000 vehicles. 

Clean electricity wanted

What is the real added value of the switch to electric cars if they are powered by electricity from coal? Timmermans insisted that even the dirtiest electricity is cleaner than fossil fuels in an ICE. Research by T&E backs up this claim, although a controversial report commissioned by the auto industry in 2019 disputes it.

Globally, however, the increase in electrification as the world attempts to decarbonise and kick-start a post-Covid economic recovery is clearly an issue. A report released by the International Energy Agency last week found that demand for electricity is expected to grow by 5% in 2021 as a result of the economic recovery, and nearly half of that will be met by fossil fuels, including coal – enough to bring CO2 emissions from the electricity sector to “record levels” in 2022.  

The electric utility association Eurelectric insists electrification is the best tool the EU has for decarbonisation, but that more renewable energy is needed to power new EVs. The transport targets proposed last week need an accompanying upward revision of the EU’s 2030 energy efficiency and renewable targets, and “radical changes to permitting processes” to end bottlenecks in Europe’s energy grid, says the organisation. 

“We will need massive investments in a diversity of decarbonised technologies, renewables, storage and digital solutions, but we also need a supportive and comprehensive regulatory framework to accelerate cost-effective electrification across sectors,” says Jean-Bernard Lévy, Eurelectric president and CEO of EDF Group. 

Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said last week that she agrees, but that such proposals will come later. “We need significantly more renewable electricity to achieve the 2030 targets,” she conceded. 

Dave Keating

Senior writer Dave Keating is a US journalist and conference moderator covering European affairs from Brussels, with a focus on environment and energy.