Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Margaux Otter at L’Obs reports that on Wednesday, the European Parliament voted to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine (ICE) automobiles by 2035, only thirteen years from now. It is an epochal vote that aims at completely re-configuring the automobile industry in the 27-member European Union, with its 449 million inhabitants.
Camille Nedelec at France 24 says that the measure passed at a session in Strasbourg by 339 votes in favor to 249 against, with 24 abstentions. So it actually passed overwhelmingly, despite substantial discontents with the measure from both left and right.
Hanging over the vote was Russia’s war on Ukraine and the EU decision to phase out 90% of Russian petroleum purchases by the end of this year. The EU wants to make Russia a pariah over its brutal invasion and occupation of 20% of Ukraine, and wants to avoid supporting that war with its energy imports. A rapid transition to electric cars is one element in any such successful quest to defund the Russian oil industry.
The Greens wanted the deadline to be 2030, but couldn’t convince colleagues that the transformation could be accomplished in only 8 years.
The center-right European People’s Party wanted to allow plug-in hybrids to be sold after 2035, but this proposal failed. They also failed to get amendments adopted that would have allowed cars to use hydrogen or biofuels as opposed to batteries.
To the conservatives’ proposals, I would say that plugin hybrids (which use battery power until it runs out and then switch to gasoline) only reduce CO2 emissions by 20% over ICE vehicles, whereas battery electric vehicles reduce them by 70%, with the potential to come down to zero with the right technology, e.g. green steel for their construction.
It should be noted that biofuels are not actually a viable alternative to batteries, since they are land intensive and would use land needed for growing food crops. It would take 30% of all the world’s crops to just replace 10% of gasoline now used. Moreover, they are extremely inefficient, requiring huge inputs to produce energy. Worst of all, burning biomass emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide.
The jury is also out on hydrogen. Where it is produced with fossil fuels, it is as dirty as they are and called “blue hydrogen,” which is a planet-killer. Hydrogen can be green if produced with wind and solar, but it may be an inefficient use of the power put out by those sources as opposed to just storing it in batteries.
Passenger cars produce 12% of EU carbon dioxide emissions, Nedelac observes, while the transportation sector in general is responsible for about 25% of emissions. Otter says that the transportation sector is the only one in Europe that has increased its CO2 emissions over the past 30 years, with an increase of 33.5% since 1990.
Europe has a goal of getting to zero carbon emissions by 2050, so as not to outrun the capacity of the oceans to absorb CO2. Emissions after about that date will linger in the atmosphere and produce disastrous heat-trapping effects for thousands of years.
Nedelac quotes the tweet of Pascale Confin, the European Parliament’s Environment chair, saying “100% zero emission cars in 2035 ! I strongly welcome the vote on CO2 standards in the @Europarl_EN. This position of the European Parliament is an important victory and consistent with our objective of climate neutrality. #GreenDeal.”
Otter points out that under the new EU law, there will still be ICE vehicles on the road– people who bought them will be allowed to drive them, and people could still buy them used.
Otter reports that the auto manufacturers were not happy with the vote, which forces them to completely retool their production lines in less than a decade and a half. They worry about consumer resistance to EVs, which at the moment in Europe come in typically at 50% higher than the cost of ICE vehicles. But she quotes journalist Luc Chatel as pointing out that mass production of EVs will inevitably bring their price down, but he cautions that it will take a few years until the prices are on par with gasoline cars. (Actually, in the US, at least, it is expected that that milestone will be reached as soon as 2026).
Nicolas Meilhan, a consultant to the EV industry also has some worries, especially the upward price pressure a vast expansion of the industry will put on lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are required for EV batteries at least with today’s technology. Europe imports them all.
But let me just editorialize a bit about that worry, Elon Musk has pointed out that actually lithium is quite common, but the lithium extraction industry is underdeveloped, so he is thinking of getting into it himself so as to increase supply and lower prices. There is even an attempt to extract green lithium from California’s Salton Sea, which is otherwise a useless eyesore. The Europeans may also find that they have lots of lithium sources and just need to develop them.
As for nickel and cobalt, batteries are already being made without them, with the technology being lithium iron phosphate. Cobalt extends the range, though, so improvements will be needed to the lithium iron phosphate batteries. In the history of technology, when substances become too expensive for consumers, workarounds are always found. No one should assume that 2022 battery technology will remain exactly the same. Materials like graphene and lithium-sulfur for batteries are already being experimented with. Billions in research and development is going into this problem, and the likelihood is that there will be rapid progress toward cheaper and more efficient batteries using more common and less expensive materials.
By the time 2035 gets here, electric vehicles may well be so inexpensive that no one would want to buy a gasoline car anyway.