10 Nov 2021, 13:51
Sören Amelang Kerstine Appunn Štěpán Sedláček Julian Wettengel

Government dispute over e-fuels stops Germany from signing COP26 car pledge

Photo shows car exhaust pipe in Germany. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.
Phasing out the combustion engine car is a hot potato issue in Germany. Photo: CLEW/Wettengel.

The German government has refused to sign on to a COP26 climate summit declaration on zero emissions cars and vans because the transport and environment ministries could not agree on whether to include e-fuels in the country’s sustainable transport future. The UK-led COP declaration excludes the use of synthetic fuels in combustion engine cars, but German transport minister Andreas Scheuer, as well as parts of the car industry, call it a climate neutral option for future car transport. Germany’s prospective next government coalition of Social Democrats, Green Party and pro-business FDP also still had need for further debate, said state Secretary Jochen Flasbarth. German carmakers Volkswagen and BMW have also said they would not sign on to the pledge. BMW CEO Oliver Zipse said it is “short-sighted” and could even harm the climate if the necessary infrastructure and a clean power mix are not available at the same time. NGO representatives said they are disappointed that Germany has not signed on to something it sees as "business as usual".

Germany has refused to join several countries in signing a declaration to accelerate the move to zero-emission cars and vans at the COP26 UN climate change conference.  The country opted out amid a row over the role of the internal combustion engine. Other major car industry locations China and the United States also did not sign the declaration.

As a result of an “internal government review”, Germany will not sign the declaration on zero emission cars today, the environment ministry said. While there is a consensus within the government that only zero-emission vehicles should be registered by 2035, the cabinet couldn’t agree on another detail of the declaration: whether e-fuels generated from renewable energies and then used in combustion engines are permitted to be part of the solution.

“The environment ministry, like the signatories of the Glasgow Accord on Zero Emissions Vehicles, does not consider e-fuelled passenger cars to be a viable option in terms of availability and efficiency,” the ministry wrote to journalists.

German transport minister Andreas Scheuer told journalists that the combustion engine technology will be needed in the future, wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung. “We want to make it climate-neutral with synthetic fuels and preserve the advantages of the technology,” said Scheuer.

The “COP26 declaration on accelerating the transition to 100% zero emission cars and vans” says signatory governments will work towards all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission by 2040 or earlier, or by no later than 2035 in leading markets. In a footnote, it defines a zero-emission car or van as “one that produces zero greenhouse gas emissions at the tailpipe”.

Footnote excluding e-fuels “unnecessary hurdle” – state secretary Flasbarth

Although the environment ministry is in support of this, state secretary Jochen Flasbarth said he tried to get the UK COP-presidency to delete the footnote to make possible German consent. “I think this footnote is an unnecessary hurdle,” said Flasbarth. He added that he was “a little bit annoyed” with the UK government, because more countries would have signed the pledge without the footnote, and the move to e-mobility would go just as fast if the option for e-fuels was kept open. The state secretary added that the prospective next German government coalition of Social Democrats, Green Party and pro-business FDP also still had need for further debate and did not want to immediately take off the table the use of synthetic fuels.

In car-loving Germany, there are around 109 cars per 100 households and the value has been rising for years, said the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). The debate over the role of the combustion engine has been among the most contested transport transition issues in Germany over the past years. The country’s car industry has perfected the technology, which is now facing its demise as e-mobility takes over. Many jobs, especially among auto suppliers, depend on the combustion engine and parts of the industry have fought hard to include the use of e-fuels in conventional cars in future mobility strategies.

E-fuels can be seen as climate neutral over their entire life cycle. To produce such synthetic fuels, renewable power is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then combined with carbon dioxide to make drop-in hydrocarbons such as diesel. If the carbon dioxide used in the process is captured directly from the air, it would be CO2-neutral when released back into the air when driving the combustion engine car. However, direct air capture is costly, and the renewable electricity is valuable. Combustion engine cars are far less efficient, as much of the energy is lost as heat, so using the renewable power directly in e-cars is seen as the better solution.

Germany's recent election campaign added fuel to the debate about whether combustion engines have a future in the birth country of the automobile. The Social Democrats (SPD), Green Party and the pro-business FDP – the prospective partners in Germany’s next government coalition – are currently negotiating an agreement in Berlin. While the Green Party has campaigned on a future without the internal combustion engine, the FDP has rejected a regulated end date and supports the expansion of synthetic fuels.

In their preliminary agreement for the coalition negotiations, the three parties said they aim to make Germany a leading market for e-mobility, and support the European Commission proposal that all new vehicles in the EU must be "CO2-neutral" from 2035, saying this “has a correspondingly earlier impact in Germany”. However, this is not exactly the EU proposal.

In fact, the Commission speaks of "zero-emission cars". As part of a major energy and climate laws reform package (“Fit for 55”), the Commission proposed stricter CO2 emissions standards for new cars and vans, which would come down to zero by 2035.

In the Commission proposals only zero emission tailpipe – so battery and fuel cell – vehicles are allowed to be sold after 2035, explains Julia Poliscanova, vehicles and emobility lead at NGO Transport & Environment (T&E). “E-fuels are smoke and mirrors for the oil industry to continue business as usual – so we hope politicians see this and keep the transport to truly zero emissions technology only," she told Clean Energy Wire.

Poliscanova added that it is “disappointing that Germany – who finally has the Greens potentially entering the government – has not signed up to something that is, frankly, business as usual.” Getting to zero emission cars and vans by 2035 in leading markets was less ambitious than many carmakers have pledged themselves. “We really hope Germany changes its stance and supports the EU-wide proposals for the 2035 100% zero emission goal as the discussions on Fit for 55 are ongoing.”

Czech Republic refuses to sign

Other major European car industry locations have also not signed the pledge, such as the Czech Republic. The country’s economy depends to a large extent on the car sector and many supplier companies are based here.

"The Czech government does not support the FIT for 55 proposal, which envisages an end to the registration and sale of passenger cars from 2035,” the country’s lead climate negotiator Pavel Zámyslický told Clean Energy Wire. “The current government has agreed that it does not want to have any date there. This COP declaration seems to me to be even more ambitious,” he added.

Of course, there would be more and more electric vehicles and charging infrastructure in the Czech Republic. “But the question is whether this is feasible for us within a decade and a half and at what cost."

Mercedes Benz on board

Several automotive manufacturers also signed the pledge. They commit to working “towards reaching 100% zero emission new car and van sales in leading markets by 2035 or earlier, supported by a business strategy that is in line with achieving this ambition”. Business fleet owners and operators, or shared mobility platforms, aim to have their entire fleets of cars and vans zero emission vehicles by 2030 or earlier.

German Daimler’s car business Mercedes-Benz is among the signatories, because it plans a rapid switch to electric cars anyway, said Daimler CEO Ola Källenius at the Handelsblatt car summit in Berlin today. "We have decided for Mercedes-Benz that speed is better as a business strategy," Källenius told the conference, adding all new vehicle architectures will be electric-only from 2025. "I see the chance that Mercedes-Benz will be fully electric in 2030, or at least 2030 plus X," he said, adding the agreement reflected this strategy. But he added "you have to read the statement carefully. It states that we 'have to work towards' emission-free driving – this statement obviously doesn't conflict with what we have said already."

Asked why Germany had not joined the agreement, Källenius said that synthetic fuels or at least low-emission fuels will be needed to make the existing car fleet more climate-friendly.

"Combustion engines will have to contribute to climate protection in the future, too" – BMW CEO

Other German carmakers, however, did not sign the declaration. BMW said the agreement will not contribute to climate protection. "We have not signed this agreement and don't intend to do so, because it will be harmful for the climate under current framework conditions," BMW CEO Oliver Zipse told the car summit in Berlin. "There is too much short-sightedness here, and I can only warn strongly against it."

Zipse added that the power mix and charging infrastructure in many countries won't be ready to ensure that a ban on combustion engine sales would contribute to climate neutrality. In many countries, the electricity won't be clean enough, and if the charging infrastructure is not sufficient, people will continue to use old conventional cars, he said. BMW will continue to develop diesel, petrol, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen cars in addition to electric vehicles, which will be the largest bloc, Zipse said. He added an end to combustion engines in 2035 was not in sight. "Combustion engines will have to contribute to climate protection in the future, too."

Germany’s largest carmaker Volkswagen also did not sign. VW CEO Herbert Diess said there was no question the car market would shift to electric mobility: "The propulsion question is settled." But he added a fast exit from combustion engines by 2030 is not possible for industry, adding that the enormous demand for batteries would be the biggest constraint, including the need to open new mines for the necessary raw materials. "This is why I believe that the EU targets are extremely ambitious. I don't think we can speed that up."

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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