The European Union has brought over the finish one of its most ambitious and far-reaching elements of its Green Deal: a ban on new sales of combustion-engine cars as of 2035.
The regulation imposes a 100% reduction in CO2 emissions by the cut-off date, effectively prohibiting the purchase of new passenger cars and vans powered by fossil fuels, such as diesel and petrol, across the single market.
The deal was made official during a meeting of energy and transports ministers in Brussels on Tuesday morning, where the regulation was given the very final approval.
But following a last-minute campaign by Germany, the 2035 ban will exempt vehicles that run exclusively on e-fuels, a nascent technology that combines hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce synthetic fuels.
E-fuels are burnt in an engine and therefore release emissions into the atmosphere, but proponents argue their production process can be climate-neutral and offset the pollution.
By contrast, detractors say e-fuels are expensive, energy inefficient and a waste of resources.
The current production of e-fuels is very limited and is still unclear how big of an alternative it can represent to electric vehicles, which are already manufactured at scale.
Germany’s demand to spare e-fuels from the CO2 regulation was highly unusual and brought the whole legislative process to a halt.
The hold-out lasted for almost one month and triggered intense talks between the European Commission and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Transport, which is currently controlled by the liberal branch of the three-party ruling coalition.
The talks bore fruit over a weekend in the form of a side deal that will open the door for vehicles that run exclusively on e-fuels to be sold after the 2035 deadline.
“The way is clear: Europe remains technology neutral,” Volker Wissing, Germany’s transport minister, said in reaction to the news.
The deal adds an additional legal interpretation but does not entail any amendments to the CO2 regulation, which had been thoroughly negotiated between member states and the European Parliament.
The Commission is now expected to unveil further steps on how to implement the e-fuels exemption.
Although a political win for Berlin, the strategy was widely criticised by other member states and MEPs for disregarding well-established rules of procedure.
“As a matter of principle, we don’t like this approach. We think it’s not fair,” said Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for the ecological transition, ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
“This is not a good and nice movement coming from Germany. I hope we learn that we cannot take this as a precedent to be used whenever because this could mean difficult times for Europe.”
Italy, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania had previously expressed reservations about the 2035 ban, but without Germany’s support, the four countries were unable to form a so-called blocking minority.
In the end, Poland was the only member state that voted against the proposed law, while Italy, Bulgaria and Romania chose to abstain.
The CO2 regulation will become law after its publication in the EU’s official journal.