CO2 limits for cars: key to climate protection and energy security

Michael Müller-Görnert
Michael Müller-Görnert is transport policy spokesman for the German non-profit environmental association Verkehrsclub Deutschland (VCD).

The war in Ukraine is a frightening reminder of the impact of our dependence on fossil fuels. For too long, we have relied on oil and gas to keep flowing, driving consumption ever higher – regardless of where the raw materials come from. Given the sharp rise in energy prices and the threat of supply bottlenecks, it’s clear that things can’t go on like this.

The same recipes that ensure climate protection – the expansion of renewables and greater efficiency – will also lead us out of the energy crisis and dependence on oil. In the transport sector, this means moving away from oil as quickly as possible and toward electric drives, economical and efficient vehicles, and, above all, switching to buses, trains, bicycles, and walking.

The focus is on road traffic. It is responsible for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and is still over 90 percent dependent on oil. CO2 emissions in this sector have risen instead of falling over the past 30 years. The main reason for this is that more and more cars are getting bigger and more powerful.

The EU has been limiting the CO2 emissions of new cars since 2009 to reduce fuel consumption. The last time car manufacturers had to meet these limits was last year, and further limits will come into force in 2025 and 2030. The limits do not apply to individual vehicles but to the fleet of new cars in the target year. Although the average fuel consumption of new cars has also fallen since then, CO2 fleet limits for passenger cars are crucial as the EU’s central instrument for the drive turnaround.

One in ten new cars is electric

Regulation is largely responsible for the fact that the share of EVs in new registrations increased significantly last year. In the EU, one in ten new cars was purely electric. In Germany, the number even doubled compared to 2020, and by the end of 2021, the share of new registrations was over 20 percent. The EV is increasingly displacing gasoline and diesel engines, accelerating the momentum away from the internal combustion engine. What’s more, many countries have now set phase-out dates for internal combustion engines. More and more automakers are announcing that they will soon be switching their production completely to purely battery-electric cars.

Against this backdrop, the EU Commission presented a draft for tightening up the CO2 fleet limits for cars in July 2021 as part of its “Fit for 55” package. The 2030 target of reducing CO2 emissions by an average of 37.5 percent compared with 2021 was raised to 55 percent. From 2035, new cars are to emit no more CO2. By contrast, the limit value for 2025 of 15 percent remained untouched.

A positive aspect of the new EU proposal is that, for the first time, an EU-wide end date for the phase-out of internal combustion engines is to be specified. This gives manufacturers planning certainty and accelerates the switch to e-drives. However, 2035 is too late, and the targets for 2030 are far too weak. This jeopardizes the achievement of the EU climate target as well as the national climate targets, as no additional CO2 reductions will be made by 2030.

The consultations in Brussels have begun. Traditionally, it is the European Parliament that wants to make the targets stricter. The lead rapporteur, Dutch right-wing liberal Jan Huitema, has proposed reducing average emissions from new cars by 25 percent as early as 2025, raising the target for 2030 from 55 percent to 75 percent, and introducing an additional interim target of 45 percent for 2027. It reaffirms the goal of zero CO2 emissions from new cars from 2035.

Associations call for stricter interim targets

Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke also wanted to propose similar specifications for the German position but was thwarted by her cabinet colleague Volker Wissing and Chancellor Olaf Scholz. With reference to the coalition agreement, only the EU Commission’s draft is to be supported. The German position is progress compared to the past – but it is not sufficient given the new situation.

We need to change course now. The coming years are crucial for climate protection and for moving away from oil. That is why the VCD and other German environmental associations are calling for an interim target of minus 15 percent to be introduced as early as next year, for the target for 2025 to be raised to 45 percent, and for annual interim targets to be set thereafter until 2030. According to our proposal, new cars should emit zero emissions from 2030.

Ambitious European passenger car limits are a decisive lever for more climate protection in transport. At the same time, they are indispensable for making us independent of oil and despotic states more quickly. The German government should realize this and reconsider its position. The reference to the coalition agreement is no longer appropriate given the distortions caused by the Ukraine war.

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