Plan to ban polluting cars hailed even as spike in fossil-fuel use conceded

The European Union is moving toward a ban on combustion engines by 2035 in the hope that short-term compromises taken by member states to deal with the energy crisis will not imperil its long-term goal of climate neutrality by 2050.

The environment ministers of the bloc’s 27 member states endorsed a “historic” agreement in Luxembourg on June 29 to cut the CO2 emissions of new cars in the EU to zero.

The agreement, reached after 17 hours of intense negotiations, included a compromise requested by some member states, such as Germany and Italy, to give the green light to alternative technologies such as synthetic fuels, also known as e-fuels.

The ministers also agreed on a 59-billion-euro ($62 billion) social climate fund and on reforming the EU’s emissions trading system.

The transport sector has long been a major source of emissions in Europe, with road transport alone by passenger cars, vans, trucks and buses accounting for more than 20 percent of the EU’s total emissions.

The European Parliament is yet to officially approve the agreement when it comes back in the fall after a long summer holiday. The current version has drawn both praise and criticism.

Yan Qin, a lead carbon analyst at Refinitiv based in Oslo, Norway, said the combustion engine ban is an important milestone for the European Commission’s “Fit for 55” legislative package, referring to the bloc’s bid to cut emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 and reach climate neutrality by 2050.

She notes that there have been attempts by Germany and Eastern European countries to block the proposal on concerns for their domestic car-manufacturing operations and the jobs they sustain.

“But the final green light from the Council (of the European Union) will imply that the next steps over this goal in the trialogue negotiations will be quite smooth. Hence I would think EU lawmakers will be able to put this 2035 zero-emissions car target into legislation,” she said.

Qin voiced her concerns over the challenges in implementation and urged the EU to act quickly and introduce more measures to push forward the deployment of electric vehicles, charging infrastructure and associated technological innovations.

“This is perhaps why the council’s approval left several back doors. It backs a review of legislation in 2026 to assess the market and prospects for plug-in hybrid vehicles and e-fuels. The latter on e-fuels is rather controversial in my view,” she said.

E-fuels are regarded as those derived from combinations of hydrogen, electricity and CO2 captured from industrial processes, but some worry that the absence of an exact definition could potentially open the door to the use of biofuels.

Concerns voiced

Greenpeace is not satisfied with the EU move, saying in a statement that the 2035 deadline is too late to limit global warming below 1.5 C.

“Europe desperately needs to decarbonize transport, but ministers missed a golden opportunity. It is now in the hands of national authorities to cut car usage, boost public transport, and make more livable cities and towns where more people can cycle or walk,” Greenpeace EU transport campaigner Lorelei Limousin said.

Greenpeace criticized EU national governments for opening the door to further promote “expensive and inefficient synthetic fuels that are harmful to the environment and the climate”.

The Czech Republic, which took the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the EU from France on Friday, has listed energy sector transformation as a priority but said that it must be carried out in an economically and socially sensitive manner so as to not jeopardize the living standards of EU citizens and the competitiveness of industry.

European Commission Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who is in charge of the EU’s Green Deal initiative, applauded the agreement by EU environment ministers as setting the bloc on a path toward its goals.

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