It may appear that the internal combustion engine’s days are numbered, but manufacturers have been given a four-year reprieve to prove new cars can stay on sale by using greener fuel.
European ministers on Tuesday agreed to mandate that all cars and vans sold in EU member states must be zero emissions by 2035 – the same deadline set in the UK under Boris Johnson’s green plan.
But while this would suggest the end of the road for new petrol and diesel engines, EU governments have left the door open, if manufacturers can prove that synthetic ‘e-fuels’ can cut CO2 emissions to zero.
This would be likely to lead to e-fuels becoming a viable option in the UK too, as Britain has so far fully adopted EU motoring measures since Brexit.
Could the internal combustion engine still be saved? European Union gives car manufacturers until 2026 to prove that synthetic e-fuels can be carbon neutral and keep petrol models on sale
The deal reached by Environment Ministers this week officially puts EU member states in the same position as Britain, with a 2035 deadline for sales of any new car powered entirely or partially by petrol or diesel.
Here, it will see new conventional petrol and diesel cars banned from 2030, with some hybrids allowed to remain in showrooms for a further five years before also being prohibited.
But, on Tuesday, the EU said car makers have until 2026 to provide evidence that synthetic fuel can qualify as a CO2-netural option.
If granted, the UK would most likely follow suit with European law, as has been the case with other decisions, including the introduction of mandatory speed limiters – or Intelligent Speed Assist – in all new cars from 7 July this year.
The extended consideration for e-fuels has been welcomed by the European Association of Automotive Suppliers – CLEPA.
Sigrid de Vries, CLEPA’s secretary general, said: ‘We take note of the decision which confirms in principle the de facto ban on the internal combustion engine as of 2035 but does not fully close the door to considering emission reduction using renewable fuels.
‘We have long argued in favour of a technology open approach, with a smart and sensible technology mix of electric vehicles and a measured use of alternative solutions involving advanced internal combustion engine technology.
‘We are glad to see support from Council for vehicles running on renewable fuels.
‘Whereas we will see a vast deployment of electric vehicles, there are practical, ready to use solutions available for hybrid vehicles, as well as for the existing cars, vans and trucks on the road, which so far have not found sufficient political support.’
In 2021, Mazda announced it had joined the eFuel Alliance – a group of organisations that want to establish CO2-neutral e-fuels as a credible contributor to reducing transport emissions
Why are e-fuels ‘carbon neutral’?
E-fuels have in recent years been touted as a potential solution for the future of shipping and aviation, but some car makers are lobbying for them to keep internal combustion engine cars on sale for longer, claiming they can cut carbon emissions by as much as 85 per cent.
Synthetic fuel is manufactured using captured carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, together with hydrogen obtained from sustainable electricity sources such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
Porsche pushing ahead with e-fuel plans
Construction of Porsche and Siemens Energy’s new e-fuel plant in Chile is underway, the German car maker confirmed in September 2021
Porsche currently plans to begin trials of e-fuels this year, having been developing its own synthetic fuel.
Initially, trials will be carried out in motorsport applications, with its first outing set to be in a Porsche Supercup race car this season.
The fuel would not require any modifications to the car or its engine and be compatible with both current and older vehicles – and it could make existing motors ‘as clean as electric cars’, when you take into account the carbon footprint created during production and supply.
The sportscar maker has been working in partnership with Siemens Energy and other international companies since 2020 to develop and implement a pilot project in Chile designed to yield the ‘world’s first integrated, commercial, industrial-scale plant for making synthetic climate-neutral fuels’.
It also signed a partnership deal for the project with energy firms Siemens Energy, AME and Enel and the Chilean petroleum company ENAP.
In September, it confirmed that construction had started to build a plant specifically for the commercial production of synthetic fuels in Chile, which will use the location’s blustery environment to produce e-fuels with the aid of wind power.
Porsche says it could be producing 55 million litres of greener synthetic fuel by 2024, and as much as ten times that amount two years later.
Commenting on the plans, Porsche boss Oliver Blume said: ‘Their advantages lie in their ease of application: eFuels can be used in combustion engines and plug-in hybrids, and can make use of the existing network of filling stations.
‘By using them, we can make a further contribution toward protecting the climate. As a maker of high-performance, efficient engines, we have broad technical expertise.
‘We know exactly what fuel characteristics our engines need in order to operate with minimal impact on the climate.
‘Our involvement in the world’s first commercial, integrated eFuels plant supports the development of the alternative fuels of the future.’
When the fuel is burned, the aim is for it to release the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air that it has taken out during the manufacturing process, creating a carbon-neutral footprint.
Critics have said this process is not only inefficient but also incredibly expensive in terms of production.
Porsche is one of the headline-grabbing car firms known to be pumping huge funding into the development of this petrol alternative.
The German manufacturer has invested around $24million into a project in Chile that it hopes will help to keep models like its iconic 911 on sale after petrol and diesel cars are banned from showrooms across Europe from the middle of the next decade.
Bosch is also known to be investigating the possibility of creating synthetic fuels, while Mazda became the first automotive manufacturer to join the ‘eFuel Alliance’ in 2021.
Green campaign group Transport & Environment has said the 2035 deadline for all but zero-emission cars and vans should ‘break the oil industry’s hold over transport’ and said any loophole to consider synthetic fuels should be ‘shut down’.
Last year, it conducted emissions tests on e-fuels and claimed they emit equally high levels of toxic NOx fumes as standard E10 unleaded sold at filling stations today.
It claimed its results also showed that synthetic fuel produced higher levels of carbon monoxide and ammonia, despite reducing the CO2 impact.
It concludes that e-fuels ‘will do little to alleviate the air quality problems in our cities,’ though it revealed that its assessments used three different synthetic mixes concocted by French research organisation IFP Energies Nouvelles, rather than those being developed by brands like Porsche.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles and e-mobility at T&E, said: ‘The end of the combustion engine is great news for the climate. But new proposals on fuels are a diversion.
‘Let’s not waste any more time on e-fuels and instead focus on rolling out charging, re-skilling workers for the electric transition and responsibly sourcing material for batteries.’
While the likelihood of e-fuels extending the availability of ICE cars looks unlikely, any decision will likely have little impact on mainstream manufacturers.
Most have already outlined their plans to cease production of petrol and diesel cars by the 2035 deadline, with some – including Jaguar Land Rover – going all-electric as early as 2025.
However, if e-fuels are passed as a green option for the ICE, it would be welcome news for performance car makers such as Porsche and Italian brands Ferrari and Lamborghini, who appear more reluctant to turn their back on petrol.
In fact, Italy was among the countries that pushed back on a 2035 deadline for only zero-emission new car sales – and was also among those that agreed to the e-fuel caveat proposed by Germany, Europe’s largest car market.
Tests carried out by T&E and a French research group last year claimed that cars running on synthetic fuel emit as much poisonous nitrogen oxides as standard unleaded. However, the results were based on e-fuel mixes they had produced themselves, rather than bought in
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