End of heat engines: Europe opens the door to synthetic fuels

Les émissions de CO2 des voitures neuves vendues en 2035 devront être réduites de 100 % par rapport à leur niveau de 2021.

Discussions lasted late into the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, but the Ministers for the Environment of the Twenty-Seven finally reached an agreement. As the Commission had offered in its “Fit for 55” climate package last July, CO emissions2 of new cars sold in 2035 will have to be reduced by 100% compared to their 2021 level.

In the current state of technology, this amounts to de facto prohibiting internal combustion engines from this date, to only authorize 100% electric, battery or hydrogen cars. Meeting in Luxembourg, the ministers however agreed to reconsider the question in 2026 “taking into account technological developments”, thus agreeing to review the question of rechargeable hybrids and synthetic fuels.

review clause

“We are technologically neutral,” commented Frans Timmermans, Commission Vice-President in charge of the Green Pact, during a press conference during the night. Some car manufacturers believe that hybrid vehicles will allow us to achieve the objectives. For the moment, this is not the case, […] but we will assess this possibility as we have committed to, in 2026”.

Similarly, the European Commissioner has not closed the door to synthetic fuels. “It doesn’t seem realistic […], these fuels seem exorbitant in terms of cost, but if the manufacturers provide us with proof to the contrary, so much the better. The ball is in their court, the Commission will be open about this,” he said.

The question of a review clause in 2026 had so far been ruled out by the European Commission. But German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke had proposed a surprise amendment so that “CO neutral fuels” are authorized2 “. The use of synthetic fuels, made from hydrogen and CO2 captured in nature or resulting from industrial activities, would make it possible to preserve combustion engines. But this technology remains expensive and energy-intensive, and does not eliminate nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions.

Supported in particular by Italy, Germany therefore finally won its case. Steffi Lemke’s position had been challenged within the German government, in particular by the Minister of Finance, Christian Lindner. Italy had, for its part, campaigned for a five-year extension of thermal engines, until 2040, in order to soften the shock of the transition for the sector.

Ferrari amendment

The Ministers of the Twenty-Seven also approved the amendment allowing niche vehicles to be exempted from constraints until the end of 2035, which MEPs had voted on June 8 – and sometimes dubbed the “Ferrari amendment” . Manufacturers who sell less than 10,000 vehicles per year (mainly luxury or sports brands) now benefit from an exemption from CO constraints.2which was to end in 2030. A date now postponed to 2036.

However, the course of the text is not quite finished yet. The new provisions introduced by the Ministers for the Environment still have to be discussed with Parliament (which had voted on a different text on June 8 ), before being ratified by a “trilogue”, bringing together the Commission, MEPs and the Council.

The reactions of automotive manufacturers to this review clause should be positive, even if there is no guarantee that it will really have an impact. For manufacturers, this will not change much: most of them have already started their shift to electric (many even aim for a 100% share of their sales on the Old Continent by 2030).

The boss of Stellantis, Carlos Tavares, thus affirmed Wednesday in Trémery (Moselle) not to be surprised by the decision of the ministers. “We based our strategic plan on this assumption,” he recalled, indicating that he did not intend to participate in discussions aimed at obtaining additional time for hybrids. “The time for discussing the future of heat engines is over,” he added.

But for their part, equipment manufacturers and subcontractors fear the heavy social damage linked to too rapid a transition. The association of European automotive suppliers (Clepa) welcomed Wednesday the progress of the night. “We have long defended an open technological approach,” said its secretary general, Sigrid de Vries, in a press release.

Transition support

“We are pleased to see the Council supporting renewable fuels. We foresee a strong development of electric vehicles, but there are already ready-to-use solutions for hybrid vehicles, as well as for cars and heavy trucks deployed on the roads,” she added.

The Clepa also pointed to the responsibility of policies on support for the transition. Because the questions of charging stations, the availability of batteries or electricity, or even the potentially prohibitive cost for consumers remain whole. The association of European manufacturers (Acea), for its part, renewed its call on Wednesday for “drastic action on the charging infrastructure”.

VIDEO. The 4 challenges to overcome to go all-electric in 2035

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