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What future the internal combustion engine still has


The EU energy ministers are to adopt the new CO2 regulation today. What are the rules for the internal combustion engine now? What role do e-fuels play? And what remains unclear? Answers to some questions.

After a week-long stalemate, the Federal Ministry of Transport and the European Union have settled their dispute over the combustion engine. Today, the new rules are to be adopted by the EU energy ministers, which is only considered a formality. How exactly do they look? And what else could change?

What is it about?

The EU law, which has been planned for some time, stipulates that from 2035 no new passenger cars and light commercial vehicles may be registered in the EU if their fuel is petrol or diesel. The 27 member states should decide that today.

However, pressure from Germany left a back door open for the combustion engine: even after 2035, cars with combustion engines should be allowed to be registered, provided they are only fueled with CO2-neutral synthetic fuels, so-called e-fuels. Federal Transport Minister Volker Wissing saw himself as on target: “The way is clear: Europe remains technology-neutral.”

What are e-fuels?

E-fuels are artificially produced and have a similar chemical composition to conventional fuels. So far, they have only been produced in pilot plants. Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity, and the hydrogen is then processed into fuel with CO2. This CO2 is released again during combustion. The synthetic fuels are considered climate-neutral if only green electricity is used for the energy required for production.

Studies show that cars tolerate e-fuels well. A major problem, however, is the lack of efficiency of synthetic fuels. According to the Federal Environment Agency, their use in internal combustion engines in passenger cars is “highly inefficient”. For the same mileage, three to six times the amount of electricity must be used compared to an electric car. The automobile association ADAC also speaks of high losses in effectiveness. E-fuels are currently correspondingly expensive. However, the ADAC considers a price of “less than two euros per liter” to be feasible in the future. The prerequisites are further falling production costs for green electricity and an “increasing mass production” of the new fuels.

Where does the future of e-fuels lie?

In view of the unfavorable level of efficiency, the future use of e-fuels in road traffic is controversial. The EU Commission sees the future of synthetic fuels primarily in shipping and air traffic, where efficient use of electric motors is hardly possible. “Under certain circumstances” the Federal Environment Agency considers their use “in long-distance road transport” to be conceivable.

However, according to a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), the production volume expected for 2035 will not be sufficient to cover demand in shipping and air traffic alone. There would then be nothing left for passenger cars, even if all the hoped-for production capacities could be exhausted. The Transport & Environment think tank explained in October that with the quantities forecast by the industry itself in 2035, only around 1.7 percent of the then 287 million cars in the EU could be operated entirely with e-fuels.

What is the industry saying?

Even if many car manufacturers do not see great opportunities for e-fuels, the industry has welcomed the planned exemptions. “We need all climate-friendly technologies to achieve the EU climate targets,” said Hildegard Müller, President of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). Electromobility remains the central technology for achieving climate targets in transport, but e-fuels are an important expansion. In the “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, Volkswagen boss Oliver Blume pleaded for openness in favor of e-fuels, but only spoke of an option “for niche applications”.

What do environmentalists say?

The environmental organization Greenpeace criticized the agreement as a setback for climate protection in transport. It dilutes the auto industry’s urgently needed focus on efficient electromobility. “The result is a step backwards for the climate and a disservice to the European auto industry.”

What’s next?

“Immediately” after the adoption of the law, the EU Commission wants to initiate the introduction of a new vehicle category for e-fuel cars. This should enable a “resilient and circumvention-proof” approval process for vehicles that are fueled exclusively with synthetic fuels. According to Transport Minister Wissing, this process should be completed by autumn 2024.

The authority wants to set in motion a special procedure for this, which in Brussels jargon is called “delegated legal act”. But that is controversial. Because the majority of the EU Parliament had spoken out against the use of e-fuels in new cars. “I am convinced that no political decisions should be made through delegated legal acts,” criticizes SPD MEP Rene Repasi. In this way, “rights of MPs would be overridden”. It was originally intended that, according to many, there would only be exceptions to the ban on combustion engines for special vehicles such as fire engines or ambulances.

Is the traffic light coalition in agreement here?

Even after the Brussels compromise, the coalition dispute over the issue continues. Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner has announced that he wants cars powered by e-fuel to be taxed better than petrol or diesel engines. The Greens, on the other hand, announced resistance: “Instead of thinking about possible subsidies for niche products in ten years, the finance minister should finally get going and tackle what is already on the table,” said the deputy Green parliamentary group leader Julia Verlinden. Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung”.

Is it certain that combustion cars will still be allowed after 2035?

No, that remains unclear. Car manufacturers should only rely on the niche technology if e-fuels become sufficiently available and economically affordable for road traffic after 2035. There are also question marks as to how binding the Commission’s commitment to legally implement the derogation is. The MEP and opponent of a complete ban on combustion engines, Markus Ferber (CSU), emphasizes that the procedure now planned is not a sure-fire success. Some MEPs are considering taking the matter to the European Court of Justice.

With information from Astrid Corall, ARD Studio Brussels, and Detlev Landmesser,