How the EU’s new emissions plan could speed the shift towards electric vehicles

UPDATE APRIL 2022: Increasingly from one year to another, electric vehicles are being seen as a key means of lowering Europe’s and global transport emissions. While the debate about electric cars is ongoing, it is important to remember that commercial vehicles also play an important role.
How the EU’s new emissions plan could speed the shift towards electric vehicles

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the European Transport Forum (ETF), a platform for open debate on the future of European Transport, to provide insights on hot topics dealing with mobility. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect an official position of Volvo.

Furthermore, this article was originally published on December 16, 2020 and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

The United Nations estimates that the world’s population will grow to nearly 10 billion people by 2050. We will therefore not only see more private cars on the roads, but we will have to supply more people with goods, which means that among other vehicles, commercial vehicles will be emitting more, and producing more noise. The UN’s estimation goes even further and foresees that round 70% of the global population will live in cities in the future and therefore more and more cities might ban vehicles with combustion engines to protect the environment and their citizens’ health. All routes previously taken by traditional vehicles will then be taken over by electrically powered cars, buses, trucks, tractors, and excavators.

It's clear that the electrification will continue to grow in importance in the coming years and decades. Already now, Norway is on track to become the first nation to entirely convert to electrified transport, spearheaded by cutting its CO2 emissions by 55% from 1990 to 2030, and selling only zero-emission cars by 2025. Other European countries are also following this path. In 2019, the European Union adopted its first ever CO2 standards for trucks requiring manufacturers to reduce the CO2 emissions of their newly registered trucks by 15% on average in 2025 and by 30% in 2030, compared to a 2020 baseline.

In addition, last year, the EU proposed(PDF, 7,186 KB) an effective ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035, aiming to speed up the switch to zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs) as part of a broad package of measures to combat global warming.

Countries worldwide, such as the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, and India, have also introduced thresholds for commercial vehicles which should help them live up to the global Paris Agreement commitment of having all transport be zero emission by 2050.

More effort is also seen across the Atlantic, as the US Environmental Protection Agency released the first part of its “Clean Trucks Plan”, already announced in 2021, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other harmful air pollutants from heavy-duty trucks through a series of rulemakings over the next three years. The first rulemaking, to be finalized in 2022, will apply to heavy-duty vehicles starting in model year 2027. That action will set new standards for criteria pollutants for the entire sector as well as targeted updates to the current GHG emissions standards. A second rule would set more stringent GHG emission standards for new heavy-duty vehicles sold as soon as model year 2030 and beyond.

The EU, the US and other countries will be facing some challenges as regulating tailpipe CO2 emissions from vehicles is a long and complex process, but good news might be just around the corner. As indicated by William Todts, Director of Transport & Environment, “This is a turning point for the auto industry and good news for drivers. The new EU rules will democratize electric cars and give a major boost to charging, meaning clean cars will soon be affordable and easy to charge for millions of Europeans”.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE FROM 16/12/2020: Electric trucks and cars have been steadily gaining ground in Europe in recent years, but they will still have to move up a gear over the next decade under new European Commission plans that could completely transform the automotive industry.

The plans are part of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s overall push to raise the EU’s current goal of a 40 per cent emissions cut by 2030 to at least 55 per cent compared with 1990 levels. She announced the new interim target in her annual State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in Brussels on September 16, saying it was needed in response to the climate emergency. “The 2030 target is ambitious, achievable, and beneficial for Europe,” she said.

Zero Emission Vehicles well underway

The new goal will be met through a broad range of measures across the economy, including new carbon dioxide (CO2) targets for the automotive industry. It is also likely to mean a new phase-out date for diesel and petrol cars: a separate Commission analysis says it will reassess, “what point in time internal combustion engines in cars should stop coming to the market.” The Commission paper explains that, “Mobility will still have to be substantially cleaner, with zero emissions vehicles well on their way to replace conventional ones, strong development of public transport and greater use of sustainable transport modes.”

The pressure on transport sectors – road, shipping and aviation – is because their emissions are the largest contributor to Europe’s greenhouse gases with the least progress to date. The transport sector’s low share of renewable energy, just seven per cent, has to rise to around 24 per cent by 2030 under the Commission plans. “A smart combination of vehicle/vessels/aircraft efficiency improvements, fuel mix changes, greater use of sustainable transport modes and multi-modal solutions, digitisation for smart traffic and mobility management, road pricing and other incentives can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time significantly address noise pollution and improve air quality,” the paper says.

Mrs. von der Leyen’s vision says the 55 per cent cut by 2030 is just a staging post in the EU’s ambitious plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In her speech, she notes that the EU’s recently agreed €1.82 trillion budget and coronavirus recovery plan will support projects to help industries decarbonise, and make massive EU investments in electric mobility, notably by building one million EU charging stations.

Supportive policies needed

Carmakers have been cautious. The main automotive industry lobby, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), said it supports the long-term goal of climate neutrality by 2050 but warns it would only be possible with “supportive policies” like a dense network of charging points and re-fuelling stations, coupled with incentive schemes.

Yet the technology is already here. Investments are flowing into electrification and the electric vehicle market is soaring despite the pandemic. A study by the German Center for Automotive Research (CAR) calculated that it would mean lowering the 62g of CO2 per km average for new passenger cars to just 43g by 2030 –  which would mean 67 per cent of new cars would have to be fully electric compared to 53 per cent according to the previous specifications. That is doable.

By chance, Mrs. von der Leyen’s State of the Union address coincided with the start of the European Mobility Week, the Commission’s annual campaign promoting clean and sustainable transport. The event saw thousands of cities organize activities that put zero-emission mobility for all in the spotlight. It is a one day event, but it is helping prime Europeans for a zero-emissions future. And as the latest announcements show, change is coming.