Berlin is loosening the handbrake on the question of the end of combustion engines by 2035. Germany and the European Commission announced on Saturday (March 25th) that they had reached an agreement to unlock a key text of the EU's climate plan on CO2 emissions from cars.

Germany stunned its European partners at the beginning of March by blocking at the last moment a regulation to reduce CO2 emissions from new vehicles to zero, effectively imposing 100% electric engines from the middle of the next decade.

This text had already been the subject of an agreement in October between member states and negotiators of the European Parliament, with the green light of Germany, and had been approved in mid-February by MEPs meeting in plenary. To justify its about-face, extremely rare at this stage of the procedure, Berlin had asked the Commission to present a proposal paving the way for vehicles running on synthetic fuels.

This technology, still under development, would consist of producing fuel from CO2 from industrial activities. Defended by high-end German and Italian manufacturers, it would extend the use of combustion engines after 2035.

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Synthetic fuels, a contested technology

In recent weeks, the Commission has been negotiating the terms of a way out of the crisis with Germany, which called for a firmer commitment on synthetic fuels, certainly already mentioned in the initial text, but in a recital deemed too legally non-binding.

"We have reached an agreement with Germany on the future use of synthetic fuels in cars," EU Environment Commissioner Frans Timmermans said on Twitter on Saturday. "From now on, we will work to get the regulation on CO2 standards for cars adopted as soon as possible."

"Vehicles with a combustion engine can be registered after 2035 if they exclusively use CO2-neutral fuels," German Transport Minister Volker Wissing said on Twitter.

Synthetic fuel technology is contested by environmental NGOs, which consider it expensive, energy-intensive and polluting.

In addition, many automotive experts doubt that it can impose itself on the market against electric cars whose prices are expected to fall in the coming years.

An initiative of the liberals of the FDP

The blockade of Berlin was an initiative of the liberals of the FDP. This small party, credited with about 5% of voting intentions in national polls, has lost five consecutive regional elections. He hopes to assert himself against the ecologists by posing as a defender of the automobile, betting on the hostility of a large part of the population to the ban on combustion engines.

To ensure the unity of his coalition Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz preferred to align himself with the FDP's demand. He was optimistic Thursday evening about a release of the European regulation on CO2 cars. "It's on the right track. It is now only a question of finding the right way to implement this promise" on synthetic fuels, "made for a long time by the Commission," he declared.

The industry, for its part, has largely anticipated European regulations and has invested heavily in electric vehicles.

Even if they prove their worth, synthetic fuels, which do not exist today, "will not play an important role in the medium term in the passenger car segment," Markus Duesmann, the boss of Audi (Volkswagen Group), told the weekly Spiegel.

With AFP

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