Death rattle of the internal combustion engine sparks a political battle

News from Brussels

Source: Politico, 2021-03-10

The survival of gasoline and diesel-powered cars is dividing the EU.

On 10 March, a nine-country coalition led by the Netherlands and Denmark called on the European Commission to decide on a phaseout date for the internal combustion engine as part of efforts to curb emissions and put the bloc on track to meet its climate targets. Austria, Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta also signed up.

"Ambitious policies and regulations — as setting a clear and unambiguous phaseout date for petrol and diesel cars and vans and stricter CO2 standards — will also provide predictability for the automotive sector and spur the transition towards zero-emission mobility," said the statement

The policy plan — which didn't propose an exact date — prompted a withering response from Germany's ruling Christian Democrats (the car industry accounts for about a fifth of Germany's economy).

"Populist calls for bans won’t help here," said Daniel Caspary, Leader of the German conservatives in the European Parliament. "It is significant that for the most part those member states are calling for a ban on combustion engines that have hardly any automobile production worth mentioning.”

The proposal plays to fears in Germany that the European Commission is looking to find a way to ban the internal combustion engine (ICE). Big carmakers like Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler hope to keep making money off them as long as possible.

"In short, it would torpedo their profitable transition of using ICEs to bridge their path to a lean and green electric vehicle future," said Matthias Schmidt, a Berlin-based auto analyst. He says an early phaseout could prompt motorists to hold on to older, dirtier vehicles for longer and force governments to splash the cash to encourage a shift to clean models.

The internal combustion engine has no place in the EU's Green Deal goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050; the Commission aims to slash emissions from transport by 90% by mid-century. As a result, electric cars have gone from a curiosity to 10% of new car sales, and their numbers are rising fast.

That trend is likely to accelerate thanks to EU legislation on track for this year. In the second quarter, the Commission will boost its 2030 CO2 emission reduction targets for cars and vans, which indirectly promotes the sale of clean cars. By the end of the year, the Commission will also propose higher emission standards under its Euro 7 label. 

Caspary wants the Commission to legislate with "a sense of proportion that does not additionally weaken one of the most important industrial sectors in Europe.”

Transport emissions have become a very political issue. While some countries fight a rearguard action to keep the old technology alive, others are finding it makes sense to push fast for a greener future.

The Netherlands led the effort on the nine-country statement because it's part of the commitment made in its 2017 coalition government deal.

"The approaching election in the Netherlands may also have played a role in this initiative," said Caspary.

Many of the other signatories have green parties in their ruling coalitions, but some other big carmaking countries and companies are sensing the shift in direction.

France and the UK — as well as Norway — have already picked phaseout dates. Volvo and Ford have said they will cease selling polluting cars on the Continent from 2030. Jaguar aims to go all-electric by 2025. 

"We’re asking ... the European Commission for clarity, because if we want to achieve a 55% reduction in CO2 emissions in 2030, then we have to start today," said Tinne Van der Straeten, the Green Party energy minister of car-crazy Belgium. "If the end goal is fixed, it’s much easier to get there.”

The reverse dynamic is working in countries where cars are a key part of the economy.

EU diplomats from the countries signed up to the plan pointed to a federal election in Germany later this year, with cars also a key issue in a local vote this weekend in the populous state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Daimler and Porsche.

"Not unlikely there's an election link there as well," a diplomat said.


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