With the climate change threat a global priority, the latest U-turn by the EU on a proposed 2035 ban on internal combustion engine (Ice) vehicles sends the wrong message to the rest of the world.
Initially, the commission had laid out an ambitious plan to phase out the sale of new Ice cars by 2035 as part of the EU’s broader climate objectives. The commitment also provided a clear roadmap for car-makers, encouraged investment in badly needed recharging infrastructure and reassured those who had already purchased electric vehicles (EVs) that they made the right choice.
By conceding ground in the face of intense lobbying by some auto industry firms and pressure from the German government, the updated plan will now allow new Ice cars to be sold after the 2035 deadline, if they run on e-fuels.
E-fuels are made by synthesising captured CO2 emissions and hydrogen produced using renewable or CO2-free electricity. The fuels release CO2 into the atmosphere when used in an engine. But the idea is that those emissions are equal to the amount taken out of the atmosphere to produce the fuel, making it CO2-neutral overall.
Environmentalists are aghast. They argue that limiting combustion engines to those using e-fuels will be unenforceable because car engines cannot tell the difference between liquid fuels that are produced from fossils and liquid fuels that are produced from electricity. E-fuels are also very expensive and reports suggest they will remain so well into the next decade.
Some policymakers also argue that e-fuels should be reserved for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as shipping and aviation – which, unlike cars, cannot easily run on electric batteries. Ironically, many of the global car giants have already instigated multi-billion euro investments to meet Europe’s 2035 EV deadline. They saw a market opportunity but are now faced with a fudge.
Given the far-reaching timelines required in car production – not to mention the massive costs – manufacturers need certainty. The EU remains a major influence on global trends. By diluting its commitment to EVs it may encourage others to adopt lax policies, effectively slowing the global shift to electric mobility.
It is essential for policymakers to resist the temptation of short-term concessions. At a national level, Ireland should not get distracted by the EU’s policy wobble. Currently, 15 per cent of new cars sold are fully electric vehicles; it was less than 1 per cent five years ago.
The small Irish car market plays little part in global car-making product plans. We should focus on our own climate objectives and radically improve our charging infrastructure to reassure the many motorists who are considering making the move – and the major investment – to an electric future.