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CLIMATE CRISIS

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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CLIMATE CRISIS

How a Hamburg factory wants to counter climate change with chocolate

At a red-brick factory in the German port city of Hamburg, cocoa bean shells go in one end, and out the other comes an amazing black powder with the potential to counter climate change.

How a Hamburg factory wants to counter climate change with chocolate

The substance, dubbed biochar, is produced by heating the cocoa husks in an oxygen-free room to 600 degrees Celsius (1,112 Fahrenheit).

The process locks in greenhouse gases and the final product can be used as a fertiliser, or as an ingredient in the production of “green” concrete.

While the biochar industry is still in its infancy, the technology offers a novel way to remove carbon from the Earth’s atmosphere, experts say.

According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), biochar could potentially be used to capture 2.6 billion of the 40 billion tonnes of CO2 currently produced by humanity each year.

But scaling up its use remains a challenge.

Amazonia

“We are reversing the carbon cycle,” Peik Stenlund, CEO of Circular Carbon, told AFP at the biochar factory in Hamburg.

The plant, one of the largest in Europe, takes delivery of the used cocoa shells via a network of grey pipes from a neighbouring chocolate factory.

The biochar traps the CO2 contained in the husks — in a process that could be used for any other plant.

If the cocoa shells were disposed of as normal, the carbon inside the unused byproduct would be released into the atmosphere as it decomposed.

Instead, the carbon is sequestered in the biochar “for centuries”, according to David Houben, an environmental scientist at the UniLaSalle institute in France.

One tonne of biochar — or bio coal — can stock “the equivalent of 2.5 to three tonnes of CO2”, Houben told AFP.

Biochar was already used by indigenous populations in the Americas as a fertiliser before being rediscovered in the 20th century by scientists researching extremely fecund soils in the Amazon basin.

The surprising substance’s sponge-like structure boosts crops by increasing the absorption of water and nutrients by the soil.

In Hamburg, the factory is wrapped in the faint smell of chocolate and warmed by the heat given off by the installation’s pipework.

The final product is poured into white sacks to be sold to local farmers in granule form.

One of those farmers is Silvio Schmidt, 45, who grows potatoes near Bremen, west of Hamburg. Schmidt hopes the biochar will help “give more nutrients and water” to his sandy soils.

Carbon cost

The production process, called pyrolysis, also produces a certain volume of biogas, which is resold to the neighbouring factory. In all, 3,500 tonnes of biochar and “up to 20 megawatt hours” of gas are produced by the plant each year from 10,000 tonnes of cocoa shells.

The production method nonetheless remains difficult to scale up to the level imagined by the IPCC.

“To ensure the system stores more carbon than it produces, everything needs to be done locally, with little or no transport. Otherwise it makes no sense,” Houben said.

And not all types of soil are well adapted to biochar. The fertiliser is “more effective in tropical climates”, while the raw materials for its production are not available everywhere, Houben said.

The cost can also be prohibitive at “around 1,000 euros ($1,070) a tonne — that’s too much for a farmer”, he added.

To make better use of the powerful black powder, Houben said other applications would need to be found. The construction sector, for example, could use biochar in the production of “green” concrete.

But to turn a profit, the biochar business has come up with another idea: selling carbon certificates.

The idea is to sell certificates to companies looking to balance out their carbon emissions by producing a given amount of biochar.

With the inclusion of biochar in the highly regulated European carbon certificates system, “we are seeing strong growth in (the) sector”, CEO Stenlund said. His company is looking to open three new sites to produce more biochar in the coming months.

Across Europe, biochar projects have begun to multiply. According to the biochar industry federation, production is set to almost double to 90,000 tonnes this year compared with 2022.

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