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Breakthrough for electric cars in EU?

Klaus Ulrich
June 30, 2022

It looks like the EU is witnessing a big victory for e-mobility as member countries have agreed in principle that new cars can no longer have combustion engines after 2035. But there are a number of risks involved.

Electric cars being recharged
Many Germans still have reservations about electric cars, but that is expected to change in the decades aheadImage: Wolfram Steinberg/picture alliance

There seems to be no future for combustion engines in the European Union anymore. Come 2035, new passenger cars and vans may only be sold if they are climate-neutral, that is if they don't emit any CO2.

European Union member countries reached a deal on June 29 following hard-fought talks to make new cars and vans completely emissions-free, which would effectively prohibit the sale of new cars powered by gasoline or diesel as of 2035 in the 27-nation bloc.

The final approval of the legislative package requires the European Parliament to resolve differences with the bloc's national governments over various details, but the general thrust of the legislation is clear.

A row over e-fuels

Debates about some unresolved details can be witnessed in many governments, including in Germany. Finance Minister Christian Lindner hopes synthetically produced and more climate-friendly fuels — so-called e-fuels — can be used to fill up conventional cars beyond 2035.

He argues this would safeguard jobs and support innovation. By contrast, Germany's environmentalist Greens only want to see the use of e-fuels when it comes to the aviation sector and heavy-duty vehicles.

The Greens' position is backed by a recent study that claims cars running on e-fuels emit only slightly less CO2 than conventional vehicles. The study was compiled by the Transport and Environment (T&E) alliance, which has come out in support of sustainable traffic concepts. The survey says that by contrast, electric cars emit 80% less CO2 than vehicles with combustion engines.

Is banning combustion engines a good idea?

That doesn't keep the International Association of Sustainable Drivetrain and Vehicle Technology Research (IASTEC) from supporting combustion-engine technology. It sent a letter to EU lawmakers voicing grave concerns about the plan to ban combustion engines.

IASTEC experts from the fields of mechanical engineering, process technology and chemistry keep backing e-fuels, arguing that the CO2 footprint of electric cars is much higher than officially declared due to the fact that the electricity needed for recharging batteries comes largely from fossil fuels, at least for the time being. The also warn that too big a focus on electric vehicles could lead to an even bigger dependency on China.

Currently, there are about 250 million cars registered in the EU, 48 million of them in Germany. The 2035 sales ban would only affect new cars with combustion engines, not those sold before. The trade in second-hand cars wouldn't be affected either.

Infographic on Norway's e-mobility incentives

A lengthy transition period

Considering the 14-year average lifespan of a car, it becomes obvious that the transition period away from combustion engines will easily reach into the 2040s in the EU.

Experts warn that since greenhouse emissions last in the atmosphere for a long time, the bloc's targeted climate neutrality by 2045 cannot solely be achieved by different drivetrain technology. They call on policymakers to raise taxes on combustion engine cars and build up better public transport systems. The latter, they say, has to become more efficient and the number of cars in use has to be reduced.

The public is divided on the issue. A recent poll by TÜV Association, an umbrella group representing various German technical inspection associations, showed that only 26% of Germans could imagine themselves buying an electric vehicle as their next car. The majority of respondents was against banning combustion engines.

Other nations are way ahead of the EU plan. Norway for instance wants to prohibit the sale of new petrol and diesel cars as early as 2025. Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have similar plans for 2030.

Carmakers stand to profit

Some observers are surprised that large carmakers such as VW and Mercedes-Benz have welcomed the sales ban of combustion engine cars by 2035. A closer look reveals that these car manufacturers are hoping to benefit from the switch.

On the one hand, the EU's climate protection requirements are already forcing automakers to drastically reduce the CO2 emissions of their models. And they certainly don't mind state subsidies for electric cars and charging infrastructure — subsidies that taxpayers often have to shoulder.

On the other hand, producing electric cars requires fewer workers as electric vehicle engines consist of fewer components. According to BMW's Manfred Stoch, "an eight-cylinder engine has 1,200 parts that have to be assembled, whereas an electric motor has only 17 parts."

Dependency on China

The switch to electromobility entails further risks though. Unexpected events make it next to impossible to predict to what extent CO2 emission levels will decrease in the future. Take the war in Ukraine. It has triggered an energy crisis which has led to more electricity being generated through coal again — something that also increases the overall CO2 footprint of companies making electric cars.

In addition, the mining and processing of many critical raw materials needed for the e-mobility push is largely in the hands of China, and this creates a dangerous dependency. Electric cars need six times more rare materials such as copper, cobalt, manganese and lithium than conventional vehicles. The price of lithium for instance soared by a staggering 700% within just a year, according to the International Energy Association.

That's bad news for potential buyers of electric cars as they are bound to become even more expensive. In Germany, you have to shell out at least €20,000 now for a compact electric car, and that is already taking into account generous subsidies.

Since carmakers enjoy far higher profit margins with the sale of expensive premium vehicles, it may well be that cheaper compact cars will fall by the wayside altogether, thus ironically becoming victims of climate protection targets.

German firm 3D-prints batteries

This article was translated from German.