Despite public denials, the European commission is considering implementing an electric car quota to be achieved by automakers by 2030, according to diplomats and sources familiar with the issue.
With France, the Netherlands and Britain planning diesel bans by 2040, commission officials are said to view a new mandate as a natural step. The issue is fraught though, particularly in Germany where the car industry remains a powerful political force and elections are looming.
One source with knowledge of internal EU discussions told Climate Home that cabinet members in the bloc’s climate, industry, energy union and transport directorates had reached a consensus on the need for tough enforceable targets.
“They have made it very clear that it is their intention to go to a zero-emissions mandate and the car industry has been told to stop complaining about it, and start being constructive,” the source said.
A California-style mandate, obliging car-makers to meet a minimum fleet quota for electric vehicles is one option on the table.
“It is looking increasingly likely that they will come forward with a proposal of that sort for 2025 and 2030, probably including plug-in hybrids,” said the source.
There has been confusion about the EU’s intentions since last Monday, when commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told journalists that “no quotas for electric cars are being considered”. Nor could they be, she added, as the bloc was committed to technological neutrality.
Contacted by Climate Home, Andreeva accepted that a binding target for ultra-low emitting vehicles was one of the options put forward for consideration by a commission paper last year. But this was different from a technology-specific quota, she argued.
“You have wording on targets for ultra-low emitting vehicles in the communication, so prima facie it’s out there,” she said. “But the distinction between targets and quotas is important as targets are much softer than quotas, which are legally enforceable.”
Despite this, Germany’s environment ministry reportedly expects a proposal that includes a quota on electric cars, as do commission cabinet members. EU diplomats in Brussels confirmed to Climate Home that they did too.
“It is under consideration,” one diplomat said, on condition of anonymity. “It is part of [the commission’s] brainstorming process.”
Targets for vehicle emissions in the EU have previously been legally enforceable, although that does not necessarily mean they will be under future legislation.
Commissioners are expected to discuss the proposal in a meeting next month, ahead of its release, which is due in November.
Next month, the European parliament will also vote on a proposal for a 25% minimum fleet quota for electric cars by 2025 and ban on diesel and petrol engines by 2035. MEPs have already backed tougher CO2 benchmarks for 2025 for 2030 and more cheat-proof testing.
If the new measures pass parliament, they will only be a signal of battles to come. The EU parliament can block, tweak or amend regulations in three-way negotiations with EU states, and with the commission. But the commission alone has the power to propose laws.
Moves to restrict pollution from the car industry within the EU commission and parliament have emerged as a hot button issue in next month’s German election. Earlier this week, chancellor Angela Merkel reversed a position that quotas were “not thought-through” under opposition fire, and backed an eventual diesel phase out, without committing to a date.
Merkel has previously warned about the dangers of “demolishing” the diesel industry. But there will have been relief in Germany’s car industry – a major historic contributor to her party – that she also pledged to maintain diesel’s current tax incentives.
The automobile sector is crucial to Germany’s economy and Merkel has not hesitated to use her clout in Brussels to protect its interests, as the industry sees them.
During negotiations for the last CO2 auto standards in 2013, diplomats accused Merkel of going “rogue” behind the scenes, by threatening car plant closures unless an agreed EU plan was stalled.
Any similar manoeuvres after the Volkswagen ‘dieselgate’ scandal might further damage consumer confidence and the industry’s long term future, according to some green analysts.
Greg Archer, the director of clean vehicles at Transport & Environment, told Climate Home that without zero-emissions sales targets for 2025 and 2030, “European car companies will suffer the same catastrophic collapse Nokia experienced for failing to embrace new technologies”.
Car-makers in Europe say that emissions standards are a regulatory burden that place them at a competitive disadvantage. Critics argue the industry is highly profitable and will need to invest heavily in electric vehicles to remain in business.
Last month, European car manufacturers pleaded with China to weaken its ambitious roadmap for introducing electric vehicles, after an apparently unsuccessful bid by Merkel to slow green growth in the east Asian giant.
“The European car industry’s dream that they’d sell diesel to China and the US is dead [after dieselgate] and the European commission knows it,” said Archer. “They’re worried that they will finish up with an industry locked into old technologies that isn’t going to invest in the new solutions needed to maintain exports around the world.”