EU, Germany reach deal on fossil fuel car phaseout plan

The European Union and Germany on Saturday said they had struck a deal after a dispute over the planned phaseout by 2035 of the sale of cars using fossil fuels.

EU, Germany reach deal on fossil fuel car phaseout plan
Frans Timmermans, European Commission vice-president, delivers a speech at the Sharm el-Sheikh International Convention Centre during the COP27 climate conference. Photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

A landmark deal to prohibit new sales of fossil fuel cars from 2035 is key to the bloc’s ambitious plan to become a “climate-neutral” economy by 2050, with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

But in an unprecedented move earlier this month, leading car producer Germany blocked the agreement at the last minute after it had already been approved under the traditional EU legislative process.

Berlin demanded that Brussels provide assurances the law would allow the sales of new cars with combustion engines that run on synthetic fuels, the focus of the breakthrough announced on Saturday.

“We have found an agreement with Germany on the future use of efuels in cars,” EU environment commissioner Frans Timmermans said on Twitter.

“We will work now on getting the CO2-standards for cars regulation adopted as soon as possible.”

German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said on Twitter that vehicles with combustion engines could continue to be registered after 2035 if they only use fuels that are neutral in their CO2 emissions.

Weeks-long negotiations between the European Commission and Germany to break the impasse centred on Berlin’s desire for a stronger commitment on synthetic fuels than that presented in the initial text.

The synthetic fuels Germany wanted an exemption for are still under development and produced using low-carbon electricity. The technology is unproven, but German manufacturers hope it will lead to the extended use of combustion engines.

Environmental NGOs have disputed the value of synthetic fuels in the automotive sector’s transition towards clean energy sources, saying they are too expensive, polluting and energy-intensive.

Some industry experts have expressed doubt over whether vehicles powered by synthetic fuels can compete in a market against electric cars that are expected to become cheaper over time.

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

Domestic politics at play

Some observers saw domestic political calculations behind Germany’s initial move to block the deal, which ruffled the feathers of some of Berlin’s EU partners.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats form a coalition government with the Greens and the liberal FDP party, which initiated the move.

The FDP, which has lost five regional elections in a row, is struggling in national polling and hoped to gain the support of voters hostile to a ban on combustion engines.

Scholz was seen as acting to maintain the unity of the coalition by aligning with the FDP position against the Greens.

Fellow major car manufacturer Italy, Poland and Hungary joined Germany in a small alliance against the combustion engine ban.

The EU aims to reduce CO2 emissions from new vehicles to zero, with the planned combustion engine plan effectively imposing electric vehicles from the middle of the next decade.

The industry has anticipated the new EU rules by massively investing in electric vehicles in recent years.

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Germany needs speed limits on the Autobahn, minister insists

Germany's Environment Minister has reignited a fierce debate around the introduction of speed limits on the motorway as she claimed the transport sector should do more to hit its climate targets.

Germany needs speed limits on the Autobahn, minister insists

Steffi Lemke of the Green Party told DPA that the coalition government was setting ambitious targets for rolling out e-cars and other electric vehicles on German roads.

“But that alone will not be enough to achieve the climate targets in transport,” she added. “And if one climate protection measure cannot be implemented quickly enough, this inevitably increases the pressure on other sectors. You can’t negotiate with the climate crisis.”

In the view of the Environment Ministry and multiple experts, putting speed limits across the entirety of Germany’s Autobahn would significantly reduce CO2 emissions, Lemke said.

READ ALSO: Eight things you never knew about the German Autobahn

“Incidentally, my predecessors from the Social Democrats (SPD) have also already taken this position,” she said. “But it is not part of the coalition agreement for well-known reasons.”

With her latest statements, the Environment Minister has put herself on a collision course with the traffic light coalition’s right-leaning partner, the Free Democrats (FDP).

Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke

Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens). Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

In coalition negotiations that took place back in 2021, the FDP made the introduction of a so-called ‘Tempolimit’ one of their red lines – forcing the SPD and Greens to withdraw their support for the move. 

Since then, the energy crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited the fierce debate over speed limits, with advocates arguing that the step would be easy to implement and help Germany meet its climate targets.

Back in July 2022, a poll by German broadcast ARD found that the majority of Germans supported the introduction of an Autobahn speed limit.

However, key figures in the FDP – including Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Transport Minister Volker Wissing – have continued to voice their opposition.

READ ALSO: Germany ‘doesn’t have enough signs’ for Autobahn speed limit, says minister

According to the latest estimates from German Environment Aid, introducing a speed limit of 100km per hour on the Autobahn and of 80km per hour on rural roads could save around 11.1 million tonnes of CO2 per year.

Currently, much of the German motorway network is covered by speed limits, but long stretches of it that don’t pass through urban areas or the so-called commuter belt are famously free of speed restrictions. 

However, drivers are encouraged to drive sensibly, including reducing speed dramatically in wet or icy weather.