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Leaving the door ajar for the combustion engine

Published on 05.04.2023

At the Council meeting of 28th March, ministers reached an agreement on the future use of synthetic fuels in cars, resulting in a partial lifting of the ban on combustion engines after 2035.


“Vehicles with internal combustion engines can be registered after 2035 if they use exclusively CO2-neutral fuels”
Volker Wissing - German Minister of Transport

Over the past few months, the media have been reporting extensively on the vote by the European Commission and the European Parliament to end the use of combustion engines by 2035. In order to be approved, however, this law had to be ratified by the ministers of the European Council, and this is precisely where it got stuck. Indeed, a consortium led by Germany, Italy and 6 other countries opposed it because, on the one hand, some considered the date of application of 2035 to be premature and, on the other hand, others considered the obligation to switch to electric cars as the only solution to be too restrictive.
 

The reason behind the impasse

Germany and others criticised the legal text for its lack of technological neutrality, even though this had been highlighted by European institutions, and the implicit obligation to switch to electric propulsion for new vehicles as of 2035. Indeed, under the guise of this supposed neutrality, the text stated that new vehicles could no longer emit CO2 from the exhaust, which immediately ruled out even those internal combustion engines running on CO2-neutral fuels such as e-fuels (synthetic fuels) - a solution that nevertheless meets the European goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.  
 

Is the 100% electric vehicle really cleaner?

In doing away with the combustion engine, the electric vehicle fitted with a traction battery was the big winner in this law that Europe sought to impose, even though it presents certain constraints in terms of usage and isn’t necessarily as 'eco-friendly' as it is made out to be. Indeed, beyond the practical constraints that come with an electric car, such as limited range, long charging times and difficulty locating charging points on the public highway, recent studies on CO2 emissions over the entire life cycle of the vehicle (LCA) have shown that this solution is far from being climate-neutral.
 
These studies have shown that, depending on the size of the battery, where it is produced and where the car is used, driving an electric vehicle can, in some cases, emit almost as much CO2 as driving a car with a combustion engine. Why? Because electricity production is not consistently decarbonised even in Europe, let alone around the world. The Green NCAP website highlights this problem by comparing the CO2 emissions of various vehicles and shows that it takes between 40,000km and 150,000km for an electric car to become less polluting than its combustion engine counterpart.
 

Why keep the combustion engine?

The rationale for maintaining the combustion engine as a mobility solution is based on the fact that, when used properly (with e-fuels and combined with hybridisation), this technology can effectively help reduce CO2 emissions while also being more practical in certain circumstances and for certain segments of the population.
 
Furthermore, having several technologies available for powering vehicles in Europe allows for greater flexibility and independence in terms of fluctuations in the supply of various forms of energy and reduces the risk of shortages in the event of a crisis or conflict. In this respect, it should be noted that China controls almost 70% of the market for the raw materials used to make batteries - another good reason not to stake everything on this technology. Last but not least, maintaining the combustion engine will also help to maintain the European car industry, which employs 12.6 million workers, the expertise of which is a major asset to the European economy.
 

Will electric cars lose momentum?

Not really. Nor is that what advocates of the combustion engine are seeking to achieve. Electric car sales will continue to grow and will likely account for the majority of vehicles on the road by 2050. Other technologies, such as combustion engines running on synthetic fuels or hydrogen fuel cells, will be used in addition, in situations where battery electric propulsion is too restrictive,
 
such as for heavy and long-distance transport, assistance and emergency vehicles, sports cars, old vehicles, etc. This is how the ACL envisions the future situation, at least. The major challenge will be to produce green hydrogen and synthetic fuels in a clean, efficient and affordable way, the main goal being to pave the way for synthetic fuels and in doing so encourage developers to invest in producing green hydrogen on an industrial scale. Furthermore, just as with electric vehicles, as the synthetic fuel sector develops it may find itself opening up to other applications at more affordable prices.
 

Conclusion

While this is certainly a historic vote, it should be noted that this is just Europe’s first step towards promoting synthetic fuels. Declarations of success should therefore be tempered for the good reason that this is only the beginning when it comes to maintaining new (and old) combustion engine vehicles after 2035. We will indeed have to pay close attention to the final text that the European Commission submits and to what the revised law will actually state. A practical methodology that will make it clear when an internal combustion vehicle powered by e-fuels is considered a zero-emissions vehicle is set to be developed by autumn 2024. Furthermore, the issue of the new Euro 7 emissions standard currently under discussion will also play a key role in the future of the combustion engine.

Finally, all of the above concerns new vehicles and does not (yet) address the issue of the existing fleet. This is another issue that is currently being negotiated in Brussels and that has not yet been resolved.
 

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