Germany signs up to the end of internal combustion engines, but subject to conditions

Published on 12/04/2023

End of combustion engines in 2035: Germany signs up, but subject to conditions

After the exasperation caused to its partners by its procrastination, Germany has finally signed the European agreement on the end of combustion engines from 2035. But it did so only after obtaining concessions that will not be without consequences.

Our newsletter #125 announced that Germany had just refused at the last moment to sign the agreement on the decarbonisation of new vehicles by 2035, which was enough to block it, because with the reservations of Italy, Poland and Bulgaria, the qualified majority for the adoption of the text could not be reached. It was an agreement that had been painstakingly negotiated, even though the EU had committed itself to it a few weeks earlier. This agreement was an essential element of the Green Pact for Energy Transition, which was intended to lead the European Union to carbon neutrality by 2050. It committed the European automotive industry to abandoning fossil fuels in favour of electric vehicles. This refusal raised doubts about the reliability of Germany, a founding member of the EU.

Exemption for e-fuels

On 28 March, the situation changed again: following the concession made by Frans Timmermans, the Commissioner responsible for implementing the Green Pact, Germany finally agreed to sign the text! To do so, it had just obtained a derogation in the form of a "delegated act", the final text of which would be postponed until September. Under this agreement, it will be possible to continue equipping certain vehicles with internal combustion engines, provided that they run exclusively on non-fossil fuels. More specifically, these will be " e-fuels This is a new "green" fuel, produced industrially using renewable electricity. Carbon-neutral and not derived from oil, a new 'virtuous' fuel in short. A victory for German industry, but one that will not prevent Germany, like all the others, from making the great transition to electric vehicles.

An election gift

It has to be said that this opportunity to move towards decarbonisation without jeopardising the expertise of its manufacturers in the field of internal combustion engines is very much appreciated in Germany. The German Transport Minister, a member of the Liberal party which is a partner in the governing coalition, threw all his weight behind this concession, threatening to block the deal at the last minute.

Is it really "green" technology?

But is this synthetic 'e-fuel' really as virtuous as it is claimed to be? In theory it is, since it is made fromhydrogen from water, combined with CO2 taken from the atmosphere at the production site. The methanol produced is then chemically treated before being used as a fuel in internal combustion engines. The result is a synthetic product that can eventually replace paraffin, fuel oil, diesel or petrol.

But this alternative technology seems to be much less 'green' than its promoters claim. To produce the hydrogen needed in industrial quantities, a lot of water will be needed, and above all a lot of electricity to ensure its electrolysis. A car running on an e-fuel, which currently costs eight to ten times more to produce than its fossil equivalent, is likely to actually spend five to six times more electricity per kilometre than an electric car of the same power! Which would make it a technology reserved for a small category of users with high purchasing power.

A less than virtuous balance sheet

Since the electricity used will necessarily be of renewable origin, this will lead to the capture of huge quantities of renewable energy, a scarce and expensive resource which the whole world will need enormously in the future. Clean electricity to produce fuels for luxury cars, while the greatest need for e-fuels will come from sectors where batteries cannot be used (aviation, maritime transport, etc.). German carmaker Porsche has already invested tens of millions of dollars in e-fuel projects, wind farms in southern Chile to produce this e-fuel industrially. But is it really reasonable to use gigantic quantities of precious wind-generated electricity to produce a fuel abroad that will have to be transported by tanker over thousands of kilometres? The carbon balance is theoretically neutral on a global scale, since the quantity of CO2 emitted during combustion is the same as that taken from the atmosphere by the production plant. But is it reasonable to emit in Europe CO2 taken from South America? The production, refining and transport of this e-fuel would already suggest a much higher carbon footprint than the officially announced neutrality, a price at the pump that is a disincentive for the majority of European users and an overall energy balance that is far from virtuous at a time when there is talk everywhere of energy sobriety.

A political success for Europe

What provisional conclusions can be drawn from the agreement reached? From a political point of view, this is a real success for the European Union. By 2035, most of the EU's car production will be made up of non-polluting vehicles. This is a major step towards our collective goal of carbon neutrality, while reducing our dependence on oil-producing countries. Failure would mean that Europe would be unable to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, and would send out a disastrous signal to our global competitors about giving up fossil fuels in private cars.

National electoral concessions

The priority given to national interests almost caused a major project for the Union to fail. Moreover, Germany's last-minute U-turn sets a very bad example at a time when the Union needs a minimum of trust between its members. The Commission and the Parliament have been exemplary, but the Council has shown once again how damaging national electoral considerations can be for the European project and therefore ultimately for each of its members.

A first step for the environment

From an environmental point of view, the results are positive, albeit mixed. There will still be a long transition period before all transport in Europe is non-polluting, but the impetus has been given and this is already an unhoped-for result. Is the derogation finally granted for engines running on e-fuels a good thing for Europe, at a time when doubts have been raised about the feasibility of all-electricity? Let's just note that this exception would be reserved for a small number of wealthy consumers who want to keep their engines roaring, whatever the economic or environmental cost. Car manufacturers, particularly German ones, are very pleased as they know that's where they make the biggest profits.

Better distribution of green electricity

But the real problem lies elsewhere, and has yet to be resolved: decarbonised electricity from renewable sources remains and will remain for a long time to come a scarce and expensive resource, and as well as being essential to a number of other key sectors for achieving our climate objectives. It would be strange, to say the least, if it were not reserved for the priority needs of Europeans. One of the EU's next tasks must be to regulate the market for this strategic energy resource, so that it is channelled as a priority into sectors that promote social progress and environmental protection, which are more in line with its values.


The Editorial Committee

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