View from Brussels: Road closed for EU petrolheads

The EU took a step closer to banning the sale of cars of internal combustion engines this week, as members of the European Parliament agreed on a plan to phase out pollution-spewing motors by 2035.

‘Technological neutrality’ should be spray painted in 50-foot-high letters on the side of the European Commission building in Brussels, given how often its officials use it to describe the EU executive branch’s policies and rules.

According to one old chestnut that is trotted out at most public events on mobility, ‘the EU would allow coal-powered cars if BMW or Volkswagen could engineer them not to emit any pollution.’

That is why a plan that is currently making its way through the labyrinth of the EU decision-making process aims to slash emissions from passenger cars by 100 per cent by 2035, but does not explicitly call it a ban on petrol or diesel.

In practice, it will be just that though, as a 100 per cent emissions cut will likely only be achievable through using battery-powered electric drivetrains or – in some cases – hydrogen power, if the fuel is sourced from renewable energy.

The plan endorsed by MEPs urges the Commission to come up with a harmonised standard for life-cycle emissions of vehicles and also the fuels they use. That standard would give carmakers a common rulebook to adhere to.

But lawmakers narrowly voted down an amendment championed by climate-friendly MEPs that would have set stricter interim targets for 2025 and 2030, as well as adding another benchmark for 2027.

The reasoning in favour was that under the draft rules, manufacturers will be able to delay their investments into e-mobility and wait until the end of the decade to move away from selling petrol and diesel vehicles.

The same conservative lawmakers that blocked that proposal also wanted to amend the 2035 100 per cent target and drag it down to 90 per cent, a position that one liberal MEP said was “not based on an industrial reality”.

Incentives for zero- and low-emission cars will also be phased out and lawmakers also struck down an amendment that supported e-fuels – which can be sourced from renewables and used in combustion engines – citing nitrogen oxide emissions as too great a risk to air quality.

It is likely that those fuels will still feature prominently in the debate about what to do with all the internal combustion cars still on the road when the 2035 deadline hits.

Jan Huitema, a Dutch MEP that is leading the Parliament’s reform, said that the CO2 standards will “create clarity for the car industry and stimulate innovation and investments for car manufacturers.”

A full sitting of the 705 MEPs will now vote in June on the agreement. Lawmakers could make more amendments if there is enough support but that is not particularly likely at this stage in the process.

Politics are hard to predict, though, and Russia's war against Ukraine makes it even more complex. If the EU struggles to implement its planned ban on oil imports then more subtle measures like reducing demand, especially in transport, could move the needle again.

Once that Parliament vote is held and the Council of member states has decided on its position – also expected in June – backroom talks can be held and horses traded so that a final deal can be brokered. This could be completed by the end of the year.

If the EU does manage to write its 2035 100-per-cent cut into law then it will join the United Kingdom and California as major economies to have penned legislation that bans the sale of new vehicles that do not meet certain green criteria.

This is one of those rare cases where the UK is outdoing the EU, though, as its deadline is 2030, not 2035.

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