Currently reading: E-fuels given reprieve in European Union bill
Ministers strike a deal to give synthetic engine fuels a chance

Internal combustion engines were given a potential reprieve after 2035 across the European Union after environment ministers agreed to give synthetic e-fuels a chance to prove they can meet the conditions for zero CO2 emissions.

The ministers struck a deal on Tuesday that cemented the European Parliament vote earlier in June to mandate that all vans and cars sold by 2035 be zero-emissions, a decision that its detractors labelled a de facto ban on ICEs.

However the agreement by environment ministers gives an opening for ICE cars to continue, if manufacturers can make a case by 2026 that e-fuels qualify.

E-fuels are created as a petrol alternative by trapping CO2 in a complex process.

The decision to reassess e-fuels in four years’ time was welcomed by Europe’s automotive supplier lobbying association, Clepa, which has long campaigned to keep ICEs part of the emissions-reduction solution.

“We're glad to see support from Council for vehicles running on renewable fuels,” Cleap secretary general Sigrid de Vries said in a statement. She noted that the decision “doesn't fully close the door to considering emissions reduction using renewable fuels”.

However, a note of scepticism was struck by Frans Timmermans, the Dutch politician who leads European Commission's work on the European Green Deal.

“How realistic are e-fuels for clean combustion engines? Until now, it doesn’t seem to be a very realistic possibility, because e-fuels seem to be prohibitive in terms of the cost,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday. “But if a manufacturer can prove otherwise, it’s up to them to do so, and the Commission will have an open mind.”

One potential manufacturer to lead the lobbying for e-fuels is Porsche, which has invested in a facility in Chile to make the fuel.

The case for e-fuels rests on whether the process to make them is carbon-neutral. The European Commission would also need to remove the stress that the 100% reduction of CO2 by 2035 needs to happen at the tailpipe. Cars running e-fuels would still emit CO2, even if they had a plug-in hybrid powertrain.

The decision to open the door to e-fuels sends the wrong signal, green pressure group Transport & Environment has argued.

“The new proposals on fuels are a diversion. Let’s not waste any more time on e-fuels and instead focus on rolling out charging, reskilling workers for the electric transition and responsibly sourcing material for batteries,” said Julia Poliscanova, its senior director for vehicles and e-mobility, in a statement.

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The EU’s decision impacts the UK indirectly as regional car makers will tailor their investments to the new legislation. The UK also has a ban on the sale of new ICE cars by 2035, but it could be open to e-fuels if the EU is convinced to let them become part of its zero-emissions policy.

The decision on e-fuels is unlikely to have a huge impact on car makers in Europe, many of which have committed to going all-electric earlier than 2035.

However, the possible inclusion of e-fuels and therefore ICEs past 2035 could persuade small-volume makes like Ferrari and McLaren to persist with ICE development, rather than follow the same electric path.

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