Germany angers EU after putting brakes on fossil fuel car ban

Berlin has upset EU partners by blocking a milestone agreement to ban new sales of fossil fuel cars from 2035, as German domestic politics take the bloc hostage.

Exhaust pipes of a Volkswagen, photographed with the brand skyscraper at the VW plant in Wolfsburg.
Exhaust pipes of a Volkswagen, photographed with the brand skyscraper at the VW plant in Wolfsburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

The planned ban is key to Brussels’ push to make the bloc climate-neutral by 2050, with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the German chancellor’s scramble to keep his coalition together has enraged many in the EU, since the deal had already passed through each stage of the Brussels legislative process — including approval by member states.

The bloc was due to formally nod it into law on Tuesday but, in an unprecedented manoeuvre, Berlin now says it can not give its agreement.

The European Parliament has already voted to formally approve the text of the bill, which will de facto mean that all new cars sold after 2035 will have to have electric motors.

This means the text can no longer be altered, despite Germany now insisting on further assurances from Brussels that synthetic fuels could still be used in engines after 2035.

The fuel Germany wants an exemption for is still under development and produced using low-carbon electricity. Some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers are based in Germany and synthetic fuels would make it possible to extend the use of combustion engines.

Faced with the unexpected roadblock, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would “work constructively” with Berlin to get the bill adopted “quickly”.

The commission did not say, however, exactly what commitment it could give, since the text already paves the way for the use of synthetic fuels if they are deemed to help achieve the aim of zero carbon emissions.

German ‘navel-gazing’

French MEP Pascal Canfin, who oversaw the bill’s passage though scrutiny in parliament, slammed Berlin’s “blackmail”.

He warned that if other member states follow suit on issues important for their domestic agenda it could threaten other texts that form part of the EU’s Green Deal, an ambitious push to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

READ ALSO: OPINION: The Franco-German ‘couple’ is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble

“The very spirit of European construction is in danger through this incoherent position,” he told AFP.

Separately an EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Germany was exploiting its outsize influence in Brussels. “Only a large EU country can afford to act in such a way,” he said.

Germany is not alone in its concerns. Italy, another major car maker, already said it was opposed, and Poland and Bulgaria had been expected not to vote in favour.

Unlike Germany, however, their opposition was clear from the start, and their opposition was not enough to block the bill’s passage through the Brussels committees.

“Germany is going back on months of negotiations … this is a challenge to the EU’s decision-making process that we rarely see,” said Eric Maurice, of the Robert Schuman Foundation, a European think tank. Maurice said the situation arose from the German government’s “navel-gazing” and the dysfunction on display in the coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals.

The situation hurts other countries and the EU’s “proper” functioning, he added.

Chancellor bowed to pressure

Behind the block is Germany’s liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is courting votes among the large part of the German population that it suspects opposes the ban on combustion engines.

The FDP wants to assert itself against the Greens by acting as the automobile sector’s defender.

In a bid to keep the coalition together, Chancellor Olaf Scholz bowed to pressure and pushed for the exemption for synthetic fuels.

Environmental groups oppose such fuels and argue they are expensive, require huge amounts of electricity to produce and are polluting since they emit nitrogen oxide, another greenhouse gas.

READ ALSO: How climate change could cost Germany almost one trillion euros by 2050

The automobile industry had largely expected European regulations and invested massively in electric vehicles.

Even if they prove to be helpful in the green transition, synthetic fuels “will not play an important role in the medium-term future of passenger cars”, Markus Duesmann, the boss of Audi, said in the weekly Der Spiegel.

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Manpower shortage dims solar panel boom in Germany

Germany is racing to meet its climate goals and massively expand renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But is a lack of skilled labour standing in the way of its ambition?

Manpower shortage dims solar panel boom in Germany

Balancing on a sloping tiled roof, apprentice Pascal Ode installs a solar panel under the watchful eye of his trainer.

Hopes are high that Ode may soon be able to install the systems on both homes and businesses.

When he is trained, he will be a much-needed new pair of hands in the industry that is crucial to Germany’s energy transition — but is suffering from an acute worker shortage.

Demand for new photovoltaic panels soared as Europe’s biggest economy was forced to ramp up the share of energy produced by renewables in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which hit energy supplies, lifting prices.

The conflict has led Germany to end its reliance on Russian energy, at a time when the country was also accelerating its plan to become carbon neutral.

Compared with 2021, the installed photovoltaic capacity in the residential sector has leapt by 40 percent.

“Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many people wanted to free themselves from fossil energy and the high costs of energy,” said Wolfgang Gruendinger, spokesman for Enpal, one of many companies benefitting from soaring demand.

The Berlin start-up offers long-term solar panel rentals, complete with installation and maintenance.

The formula is proving attractive. Enpal, which began business in 2017, said it has rented 40,000 kits to individuals, including 18,000 last year alone.

It currently installs 2,000 kits a month.

“Demand is very strong. We have to install many units in the shortest possible time, while at the same time, we are seeing huge shortages in qualified workers,” said Alexander Friedrich, who was hired by the company to train new employees.

To cope with the demand, Enpal set up its own training school last year in Blankenfelde, in the south of Berlin, to train workers to install panels, as well as train specialised electricians to work on photovoltaic panels.

“We are recruiting people from all backgrounds — former pizza workers, cooks, delivery riders, taxi drivers,” said Gruendinger.

The company puts about 100 new hires through the school each month.

Among them is Ode, 19, who responded to an advertisement on Instagram offering the four-week training.

READ ALSO: Can German homeowners expect high renovation costs under new EU law?

‘Something new’

Learning “something new” had attracted him to take on the challenge, he told AFP.

“I really enjoy the fact that it is a job that comes with fresh air and that you’re always on the road,” he added.

Enpal does not have prohibitive education criteria for their new hires. But one key requirement is for new recruits to climb a high ladder reaching at least two storeys up to screen out those with a fear of heights.

The sound of drills, screwdrivers and metal components being handled by groups of apprentices reverberated around the training hangar.

Wearing helmets and attached to ropes, the trainees were practising on roof replicas mounted on the ground.

Solar panel installation Germany

Trainees install solar panels at the solar power company Enpal’s training facility in Blankenfelde: Photo: Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

Their task is urgent.

Germany is aiming for 80 percent of its energy needs to be covered by renewables by 2030, against 46 percent a year ago.

To do so, lawmakers have set a target of installing 215 gigawatts (GW) of photovoltaic capacity by 2030 — meaning that annual rate of installation has to be tripled from last year’s effort of 7.2 GW.

The plan is for roofs of factories and commercial buildings, as well as fields, to be covered with them, according to draft legislation promoting their installation.

But “the shortage of qualified workers threatens to slow down the energy transition”, warned the Cologne-based think-tank German Economic Institute (IW) in a recent report.

The worker gap is so wide that the Federation of Solar Industries BSW said it was looking to Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ambitious immigration reform to provide some relief.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Berlin is voting on going climate neutral by 2030

The law, expected to be passed this year, is aimed at easing immigration issues.

The BSW cites the example of a recent agreement that aims to attract Indian workers trained in solar energy installations.

IW estimates that there is a shortfall of 216,000 electricians, heating and air-conditioning experts, and IT specialists necessary to develop the solar and wind energy sector in Germany.

The figure does not take into account plans to bring back production of solar panels to Germany.

Bring production back

Currently, 80 percent of the panels’ components come from China, according to the International Energy Agency.

The massive reliance on the Asian giant for the supply chain for materials such as polysilicon, wafers, cells and modules has come to the fore for Germany after it was recently stung by its dependency on Russian energy.

Once a leader in producing photovoltaic cells, with market heavyweights in the 2000s like Solarworld, Q-Cells and Centrotherm, Germany has seen its market share plunge after state subsidies dried up and China ramped up its production.

Over the past two decades, some 100,000 jobs in the sector have been lost.

But the trend may be starting to reverse.

Swiss specialist in the sector, Meyer Burger, built a factory at Thalheim, east Germany, in 2021, spurred by lower production costs and growing homegrown demand.

By Sophie Makris