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Photo: Arnulf Hettrich / IMAGO

Trucks and buses are to emit significantly less CO₂ in the EU in the future. MEPs in the European Parliament voted in Strasbourg on Tuesday in favour of a law that would reduce emissions from newly registered heavy-duty vehicles by 2040 percent by 90. The target of zero emissions even applies to buses in urban transport from 2030 – five years earlier than has already been decided for passenger cars.

The Parliament essentially adopted the EU Commission's draft, but went beyond it on one point: the CO₂ limits should also apply to special vehicles such as refuse collection or construction vehicles, as well as small trucks. This would mean that the entire commercial vehicle market would be committed to the climate targets, instead of leaving an exemption for around a fifth of vehicles.

The requirements can be met with battery-electric trucks, the production of which is already gaining momentum. In the medium term, some manufacturers are focusing on commercial vehicles with fuel cells that use hydrogen as an energy carrier to power electric motors. Hydrogen-powered combustion engines are also eligible for the EU regulations.

Loophole for biofuels and e-fuels

At the insistence of the conservatives in parliament, the MPs opened another option with a narrow majority: According to this, vehicles that run on biofuel or synthetic fuels, so-called e-fuels, should also be counted as emission-free.

The use of so-called alternative fuels is controversial. So far, the EU Commission's proposal has not provided for e-fuels. "Excluding technologies from the outset is the wrong way to go," said Jens Gieseke (CDU), transport policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU in the European Parliament.

"We don't see that e-fuels have a future at all," said Green MEP Michael Bloss. According to the Greens, synthetic fuels should be used primarily in aviation and shipping, where electric drives are not an alternative. "The fossil fuel lobby is thus torpedoing modernization and risking that Europe will fall further behind in the race for future production sites," Bloss is quoted as saying in a press release.

Biofuels and e-fuels are a "loophole" to bring trucks with diesel engines onto the market for decades to come, warned Kim Kohlmeyer, the representative for commercial vehicles at the organization Transport & Environment. Oil companies in particular have been committed to this in order to maintain the demand for fossil fuels.

Conventional combustion engines can be refueled with biofuels or synthetic fuels without much effort. Synthetic fuels are produced using electricity, water and carbon dioxide. If the electricity comes from renewable energies, its use is considered climate-neutral.

EU states still have to have their say

Parliament's draft provides for a gradual reduction in CO₂ emissions. By 2035, buses and trucks are to emit 70 percent less carbon dioxide, and by 2040 emissions are to be reduced by 2005 percent compared to the base year 90.

The manufacturers' association Acea had described the EU's plans as "very ambitious" against the background of "inadequate framework conditions". The requirements could not be achieved by the manufacturers alone. Instead, they would have to be closely coordinated with other stakeholders, such as infrastructure operators, freight forwarders and public transport. On the other hand, individual truck manufacturers, who are already heavily relying on electric vehicles, called for stricter EU requirements – but at the same time also for more government support, for example through subsidies on higher purchase prices or the expansion of the charging infrastructure.

According to the EU Commission, heavy-duty vehicles are responsible for more than a quarter of climate-damaging emissions in the transport sector. However, the EU is not only contributing to climate goals with the law, explained the responsible rapporteur in Parliament, Bas Eickhout (Greens). Lower CO₂ emissions are also "a decisive factor for clean air in our cities".

The law is now being negotiated with the member states. So far, Germany has not been able to prevail among the EU states with its proposal to include e-fuels in the text. With Parliament's vote, synthetic fuels are now back on the table. Transport & Environment called on the environment ministers to remove the passage.