No, Europe Is Not Banning The Combustion Engine By 2035

Industry News / 8 Comments

You may have been misled by sensationalist headlines, but combustion has not been banned in Europe.

The media has done it again, misled you with sensationalist headlines like "Europe Bans The Internal Combustion Engine From 2035." Even the title assigned to CarBuzz's original article on the matter last night was a little misleading (Editor's Note: the title of the article has subsequently been updated to reflect the latest updates more accurately).

To be clear, the European Union (EU) has not explicitly banned the sale of combustion-powered cars from 2035.

The legislation introduced by the EU on 10 February 2023 is not the official rubber-stamping of the act into law - which is expected in March - but rather an approval from the European Parliament and a clarification of the proposed act that gives automakers greater leeway to continue the production of combustion-powered vehicles provided the fuel that powers them is carbon neutral, such as the synthetic eFuel Porsche is developing that will power various Porsche 911 experiences globally.

So what does the new legislation say, and what are the ramifications?


Expanded Loopholes For Carbon-Neutral Fuel

EU Document C(2023)1086, which you can access here, specifically relates to new provisions in Europe's Renewable Energy Directive (RED) introduced to allow the use of "renewable liquid and gaseous transport fuels of non-biological origin and recycled carbon fuels."

This is a broad term that may seem confusing, but the simplest distillation of the fuels to which it references is that the EU will allow the use of liquid and gaseous hydrogen (and other combustible fuels similar to hydrogen) and, specifically, synthetic fuels created by harvesting carbon from the atmosphere and synthesizing it with green hydrogen.

Basically, combustion will be allowed beyond 2035, so long as the fuel that powers it is considered carbon neutral. Specifically, the synthesization process - from start to finish, including the acquisition of raw materials - must be carbon neutral.


In theory, this new provision takes some of the pressure off auto manufacturers, placing it instead on fuel suppliers to ensure their fuel is carbon neutral. This has several benefits and drawbacks, as the likes of Shell, BP, Total Energies, and other fuel companies have the resources to pursue such fuels where many automakers don't. However, should these providers determine that such fuels - whether synthetic fuel or hydrogen fuel - are too costly to produce without tangible benefits, they could just as easily decide not to do so at all.

The RED has not yet determined a minimum threshold for the greenhouse gas emissions of these types of fuels and the means by which these emissions will be assessed, but provision has been made for these thresholds and methods to be developed and added at a later date.


A Stay Of Execution, Not A Death Row Pardon

While fans of the combustion engine may choose to see this as a silver bullet that saves the powertrains we love so much, this is more of a stay of execution. That's because the European Union is still working towards climate neutrality by 2050, and simply recycling carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not considered by the Union to be solving the greater problem. The EU also foresees capturable carbon becoming scarce the nearer we get to that 2050 deadline, as new products and production processes will be emitting less (if any) carbon into the atmosphere.

The latest documentation explicitly states that "the continued use of renewable liquid and gaseous transport fuels of non-biological origin and recycled carbon fuels that contain carbon from non-sustainable fuel is not compatible with a trajectory towards climate neutrality by 2050 as it would entail the continued use of nonsustainable fuels and their related emissions. Therefore, capturing of emissions from non-sustainable fuels should not be considered as avoiding emissions indefinitely ..."


The act also specifies that "emissions from [...] industrial processes or from the combustion of non-sustainable fuels, should be prevented, even if they could be captured and used to produce renewable liquid and gaseous transport fuels of nonbiological origin and recycled carbon fuels."

The expectation is that, as cars will be emissions-free from 2035 and the use of other non-sustainable fuels ended as of 2040, recycled carbon fuels will likely dwindle from that point onwards.

If these fuels were to be considered long-term solutions, they would require continued carbon emissions from other sources, which is what the EU is trying to put an end to. The broader legislation that contains these ramifications for the automotive industry will also dictate reductions in carbon emissions from other energy sources, from power generation to industry and everything in between.

Roadgoing vehicles are merely one cog in the machine and are not being singled out by the EU; aviation, rail, and nautical transport are also included.


Automaker Responsibilities

Automakers are required to play their part in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Just like combustion engines were subject to tightening legislation that made them more efficient, OEMs will have to build machinery that is cleaner and greener. The hard truth, and the one many of us would choose not to believe, is that electric cars are a more efficient means of transport than burning gasoline. Even if the gasoline is produced in a carbon-neutral fashion, it is still not as efficient as electric cars powered by renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

To that end, dozens of OEMs have announced electrification strategies that will be in effect fully before 2035. These include Mercedes, Volkswagen, Audi, and many more. There are, however, a few holdouts, with the two biggest being BMW and Toyota. Both of these have advocated that the combustion engine still has a role to play, but neither has abdicated responsibility and they are both pursuing electrification plans. However, they will continue to build combustion-powered cars until such time as they no longer have a place in society.


Decades Before Combustion 'Dies'

While 2035 is just a few years away, the fear that combustion will be dead and gone is a misnomer. Combustion may be largely phased out in Europe, with the US expected to follow suit if recent legislation in California, New York, and Oregon is any indication, but there are dozens of regions around the world that are simply not in a position to make the switch to EVs.

Africa, South America, large portions of Asia, and the likes of rural Australia simply do not have the infrastructure nor the financial means to switch to EVs. Regions where large distances need to be covered without frequent rest stops require the convenience of rapid refueling or the ability to carry extra fuel in jerrycans. In these regions, EVs are already starting to filter into the market, but they are a long way from becoming mainstream. Combustible hydrogen fuels and synthetic fuels will play a massive role in reducing the carbon footprints of these regions until such time as EVs are viable - and that's notwithstanding as-yet-undeveloped technologies coming along that may surpass EVs for efficiency.


Combustion Will Always Have A Place

Decades from now, when many of the issues addressed above have been resolved, it is this author's opinion that combustion will still live on. It will not be the mainstream, nor does it need to be, as electrification is simply better for 90% of users at present, with that number likely to grow. But it will be retained in an enthusiast fashion.

While California may soon pay classic car owners to perform electric conversions, the rise to prominence of synthetic fuels will keep combustion-powered classic and enthusiast cars alive, even if they're only used as weekend toys due to the expense of such fuels. There will be other conversions available too. Toyota recently showcased a hydrogen combustion AE86 concept at the Tokyo Auto Salon, describing it as an alternative means of keeping classic cars alive without compromising on their emotive elements.

Even the likes of Gordon Murray and Christian von Koenigsegg have spoken of the future of combustion thanks to loopholes in European legislation for renewable fuels. The big difference is that seeing a combustion-powered car will be a rare occasion, but it will not go away entirely.


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