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Europe wants to ban new gas cars by 2035. Why not sooner?

As part of the European Green Deal, the EU has adopted a package of climate proposals they’re calling “fit for 55”. In it, Europe targets a 55% reduction in CO2 by 2030 and full climate neutrality by 2050. To serve this goal, Europe plans to reduce new car emissions by 55% by 2030 and 100% by 2035 — which means no new emitting vehicles.

The EU-wide 55% by 2030 reduction target is based on 1990 levels, but the automotive 55% by 2030 target is based on 2021 levels. The target is calculated from new car sales, not in-service cars. In 2020, the average emissions from a new car in the EU was 107.8g CO2/km and will likely drop in 2021, which means new cars in 2030 will need to emit an average of 40-some grams of CO2 per kilometer.

As of 2035, though, this will be a moot point, as all new vehicles will need to be non-emitting.

The EU is also directing member states to expand charging capacity as zero-emission car sales increase. If EV sales go up by 100%, charging stations should double as well. Charging points will need to be installed at least every 60km on major highways and hydrogen refueling stations every 150km.

The package includes other reforms as well across many industries. It lowers carbon caps in the EU emissions trading system (ETS), regulates air and maritime transport, changes forest management practices, targets 40% renewable electricity generation by 2030, forces public building renovations, and adds a carbon border adjustment tariff, so EU emissions don’t just get offloaded to other countries. See the full press release with a point-by-point breakdown on the European Commission’s website for more info.

It’s an ambitious and broad plan that covers all the main sources of human emissions and represents stronger targets than the EU has ever set before. Previous EU legislation had targeted a 40% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030 when compared to 1990 levels. But the EU has been gradually signaling a desire to improve that target, and today’s official reveal of the new climate plan confirms the new 55% target.

EU emissions have already dropped by 24% since 1990, which means they will need to drop by another ~40% from today’s levels to reach this new target.

But virtually all of EU emissions reductions have been driven by cleaner power generation and regulation of energy-intensive industries. Transport has not had similar emissions reductions since 1990. In fact, transport is the only sector where emissions have increased since 1990, and currently make up more than a quarter of overall emissions in the EU.

The largest increase has been in aviation, followed by maritime, followed by road transport. Rail emissions are down. Aviation emissions have increased tremendously as Europeans have taken more and more cheap flights to get around the continent, rather than more efficient forms of travel such as rail. But road transport is still the emissions king, with 72% of EU transportation emissions coming from the road and 60% of road transport emissions coming from passenger vehicles.

The “fit for 55” plan seeks to correct all of these increases with targeted regulations on each sector.

Aviation was previously given free emission allowances in the EU ETS cap-and-trade system, and those will be gradually phased out. Maritime shipping was previously ignored in the ETS, and now, maritime emissions will be included. Road transport will be covered under a new, separate system regulating fuel distribution.

Cap-and-trade systems work by setting a cap on carbon emissions, and cleaner entities within the system can auction off unused emissions allowances to higher-polluting entities, adding an economic incentive to lower emissions.

Electrek’s Take

Unfortunately, despite the wide-ranging nature of this plan, it could do more to stop road transport emissions. We don’t want to sound like a broken record here (no, seriously, we don’t, please just put strong-enough targets into place, so we don’t have to keep saying this), but why not sooner than 2035?

The sooner we tackle emissions, the cheaper and easier it will be to do so. And the difference in cost and difficulty is quite huge the longer we wait. The EU even acknowledges this, stating “the medium- to long-term … benefits of EU climate policies clearly outweigh the costs of this transition”.

The EU is already on a downwards trajectory in terms of total overall emissions, which is a good head start, but transport is going in the wrong direction. This is the sector that needs to be nipped in the bud faster than any others, especially since results will lag behind implementation.

In other sectors, such as electricity generation, polluters will be judged on current emissions. But in automotive, per the plan to limit new car sales, those who sell polluting vehicles will be judged on current sales of vehicles that will continue emitting for a decade or more. Most emitting cars put on the road today will still be emitting in 2030. Surely there will be gas vehicles sold in 2034 that continue emitting until 2050 when the EU plans to be fully carbon neutral.

As many of our readers know, new electric cars are already just better to own than gas cars unless you have some niche situation. There is some lack of variety, and the used market isn’t as robust, but for homeowners buying a sedan, crossover, or hatchback, the electric experience is just so much better than the experience of buying a new gas car.

And with more and more models coming out as time goes on and those models getting better at a faster rate than gas cars, we can’t see anyone in their right mind wanting to buy a new gas car in 2030.

Frankly, this might all be a moot point. Who’s really going to want to buy a gas car in 2034 anyway? Residual values will be terrible, the cars will feel dated and less-capable, there will be the threat of not being able to find gas as many stations will close for lack of customers, and the remaining ones will probably be expensive to fuel at, and you’ll probably get funny looks from people who don’t like that you’re killing them a little bit every time you go to the store. So why not just rip the bandaid off and target sooner?

Thankfully, this is more of a baseline than anything. On many other issues, the EU sets a baseline number, and then member states are free to set higher targets than that number (for example, paid vacation – the EU minimum is 20, but many countries give 25 or even 30 days).

A number of EU countries have already proposed an end to internal combustion vehicle sales earlier than 2035. Several are targeting 2030, and a few even earlier. Norway is ahead of the world with a 2025 target – which shouldn’t be hard to meet, given that gas cars make up <10% of new car sales there already. And formerly-EU UK has moved up their target twice, from 2040 to 2035 to 2030. Other European nations could see the writing on the wall and do the same — and US states like CA, NY, WA, and MA should follow and move their bans forward as well.

So we hope that member countries will continue to pursue their targets and allow the EU targets to act as a baseline that can be exceeded by member states.

The EU still deserves credit for this plan, which seems to cover everything, and would still be a stronger gas car ban than any other national or supranational entity that we’ve seen. It’s stronger than China, Japan, and much stronger than a pathetic 2045 target in the US which hasn’t even been adopted, only proposed by 12 governors. But we, as usual, think stronger targets are not only possible, but necessary.

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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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