Ban on Combustion Engines Benefits No One – Not Even Climate

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In 2035, the ban on combustion engines is set to become a reality at the EU level. From that point onwards, only pure gasoline or diesel vehicles should no longer be allowed to be sold. But what does this decision entail?

To understand: The combustion engine ban pursued by Ursula von der Leyen does not entail a complete prohibition on driving conventional combustion engine vehicles starting in 2035. Even after 2035, cars powered by internal combustion engines may still be on Europe’s roads. However, a ban on new registrations encroaches on both the entrepreneurial freedoms of the automotive industry and the consumer choices of citizens. Overall, it is the wrong approach in a market economy system.

Fact: According to current regulations, within the EU, pure gasoline or diesel vehicles will no longer be allowed to be sold after 2035.

Success Story of Conventional Internal Combustion Engine

The success story of the automobile is, not least, the success story of the combustion engine. For much of its history, the automobile has been associated with the consumption of fossil fuels. Gasoline or diesel – both petroleum products – power the engines, enabling the mobility we take for granted today. The downside is that combusting these fuels releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. This accumulates in the atmosphere and alters the global climate.

Therefore, it is clear that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should not exceed certain limits to prevent critical climate changes. To achieve this, emissions of fossil carbon need to be significantly reduced. It is therefore absolutely necessary to consider how carbon emissions in the transportation sector can be reduced. Whether an EU-wide ban on combustion engines sets the right tone for this is an entirely different question.

Fact: Approximately 18 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions of fossil origin come from road transport.

Electric Motors

The decision of the EU Commission stipulates that the future of automobiles in Europe largely belongs to the electric motor – there is no trace of technological neutrality. But how does the electric motor work? And what challenges does it pose to our infrastructure? Electric motors convert electrical current into kinetic energy with the help of magnets. They are comparatively efficient and emit no greenhouse gases or air pollutants locally. They are powered by electric current, which, for example, can come from a battery or a hydrogen fuel cell.

However, for driving to be truly climate-neutral, this electricity must come from climate-neutral sources. Thus, real benefits from a climate perspective will only arise if the energy mix in the German power grid fundamentally changes. Given the still sluggish expansion of renewable energies and the phase-out of nuclear power, it is questionable whether the required amount of climate-neutral electricity will be available.

Regardless of the climate policy challenge, the expansion of electromobility brings additional tasks. To meet the mobility demands of our modern society, we need an established and reliable charging infrastructure. This means that a comprehensive fast-charging network, analogous to conventional gas stations, must be established along traffic routes, enabling quick and uncomplicated battery recharging. Even with the use of the latest standards and under optimal conditions, charging cycles will take at least 30 minutes to recharge enough power for a range of 250 to 300 kilometers. Especially for frequent drivers, this could significantly extend the required travel time.

Furthermore, the general parking infrastructure must also meet the new requirements. This is necessary to utilize the vehicle’s parking periods, such as overnight, for battery charging. In addition to the extensive expansion of actual charging infrastructure, practical adjustments must also be made to the power grids to accommodate the new conditions. The current grid infrastructure cannot reliably handle the enormous additional demands that will arise from future mobility needs. In addition to a continuous transition of the fleet, the expansion of e-mobility requires primarily infrastructural adjustments to the new circumstances.

Fact: The costs for network expansion in electromobility amount to approximately 16 billion euros by 2030.

Additionally, both the magnets in the drivetrain and the batteries used require a significant amount of scarce and, above all, critical resources. One example: In the production of battery units, the practices of lithium mining have been a focus of media attention in the past. The immense water consumption associated with it has been particularly criticized. It is somewhat cynical to consider that the largest lithium mining areas are located in the Chilean Atacama Desert – the driest place on Earth.

However, lithium is just one of the extracted resources. Cobalt and nickel also play crucial roles in battery construction. More than 90 percent of known cobalt reserves are in the Congo. There the resources are mined, often utilizing slave and child labor – a practice that extends to other raw materials required for battery production as well. Adding to this is the geopolitical perspective. Germany and the EU have been heavily reliant on China for the supply or processing of other raw materials. In an escalating system competition, this critical dependency could be leveraged against European interests.

Therefore, the advantages of battery electric technology in terms of local emissions-free driving must be weighed against the ethical, ecological, economic, and political drawbacks from a sustainability perspective.

Fact: Over 80 percent of the rare earths used in Europe come from China – a critical dependency!

Alternative Fuels

Under pressure from the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the German government has negotiated a compromise with the EU Commission that allows for the continued registration of combustion engine vehicles even after 2035, provided they are operated with climate-neutral synthetic fuels (e-fuels) or other renewable and climate-neutral fuels. However, there is currently no legal certainty for this exemption. Instead of focusing on changing the propulsion system, this approach aims to change the fuel. This fuel could be made available to vehicles at traditional gas stations with only minimal adjustments to the infrastructure necessary.

Synthetic fuels, also known as e-fuels, are composed of hydrogen and carbon compounds. Hydrogen is obtained through electrolysis from water, while carbon atoms can be captured from the air or from combustion processes through carbon capture methods. Using these building blocks, conventional fossil fuels can be replicated through complex chemical processes. The advantage is that there is no change in the “carbon balance.” As long as no fossil energy is used in the production of hydrogen or carbon capture, there is no change in atmospheric carbon concentration. Therefore, these fuels enable the climate-neutral operation of combustion engines.

The use of E-Fuels could allow for the continued use of existing gas station infrastructure, meaning consumers would not need to change their usage behavior as long as the fuels are available in sufficient quantities, yet still move in a climate-neutral manner. Additionally, e-fuels enable a significantly simpler climate-neutral energy transport due to their comparatively high energy density per unit volume, ultimately allowing for the continued use of existing infrastructure and transport fleets.

Regions particularly suited for the production of climate-neutral and renewable energies could produce and market fuels comparatively inexpensively and internationally. Especially in Africa, South America, and Asia, these opportunities could lead to significant economic growth and thus enormous societal development potential. However, strategic energy partnerships must be strengthened and advanced now to realize these potentials.

Furthermore, investments in e-fuels are necessary to make shipping, aviation, heavy-duty road transport, or specialized sectors like agricultural machinery climate-neutral and sustainable. Additionally, considering the global fleet of combustion engine vehicles, investments in synthetic fuels are essential to enable their climate-neutral use in the future.

After Demise of Combustion Engines, Is It No Longer Necessary to Build New Roads?

In principle, two alternatives are available for driving cars in a climate-friendly manner in the future: electromobility and e-fuels. The decision on which of these alternatives to prioritize should not be made by politicians but rather by the people themselves.

However, it is clear that some critics of von der Leyen’s combustion engine ban are already using it to fundamentally question the existence of cars and reject the expansion of new roads. Yet, regardless of how cars will be powered in the future, the expansion of transportation infrastructure must be pushed forward. People in Germany rely heavily on the condition of the roads in our country. Already, the business operations of German companies are severely impacted by a crumbling road infrastructure. People spend hours stuck in traffic jams every year.

It is unlikely that our road infrastructure will lose importance in the future. On the contrary, there is no indication that people will abandon cars after 2035, regardless of how they are powered. Germany urgently needs modern roads. Where else will the climate-friendly cars of the future drive?

How Should Phase-Uut of Combustion Engines Be Assessed at EU Level?

The decided combustion engine phase-out at the EU level is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, numerous EU countries will likely struggle to establish the necessary charging infrastructure by 2035. This becomes particularly evident when considering the challenges this endeavor poses even in prosperous countries like Germany. At present, it seems almost impossible that in just over ten years, all EU countries will have infrastructure in place allowing for the exclusive registration of electric vehicles.

Secondly, the decision represents a departure from the successful model of technological neutrality. There is no doubt that electromobility is a groundbreaking future technology. However, why should other equally climate-friendly propulsion technologies be simply banned? At this point, we cannot with certainty predict the progress in the development of propulsion technologies. Why voluntarily deprive ourselves of this opportunity?

It is time for the EU Commission to finally define a clear legal framework so that combustion engines powered by alternative, climate-neutral fuels can also have a future beyond 2035. Anything else would significantly harm the German automotive industry, the economic standing of Germany, and the economic strength of the EU.

Written by Maximilian Reinhardt and Dirk Assmann.

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