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In the absence of clean technology, green fuels will be needed to reduce emissions from Europe’s transport sector. However, the debate over which transport mode should be the primary recipient of those fuels is becoming increasingly heated.
With the exception of electric cars and trains (and yes, cycling and walking), Europe runs on fossil fuels.
Cars, trucks and buses rely on petrol and diesel. Planes are made airborne thanks to kerosene. Heavy crude oil powers wave-breaking ships.
Indeed, the stranglehold that fossil fuels have on the sector makes decarbonising transport one of the green transition’s starkest challenges.
Change is possible but our options are limited.
We could simply reduce how much we travel, as championed by the environmentally minded. But with airline passenger numbers predicted to surpass pre-pandemic levels, this option seems unlikely to materialise.
The second option is to embrace new, emission-free technologies. Electric cars and trucks are already on the rise, but for trains and ships, the equation is more difficult.
Electric planes can currently carry only around four passengers, while a commercial hydrogen-powered plane is yet to be released (Airbus is aiming for 2035). Container ships also face a dearth of clean options.
The third option is to green the technology we currently have. This means replacing carbon-dense fossil fuels with clean(er) alternatives, primarily advanced biofuels from wastes and residues, or synthetic fuels produced with green hydrogen and carbon captured from the atmosphere.
In theory, these fuels could take the carbon sting out of any motorised transport mode. But they are available in much smaller quantities and at much higher prices than their dirtier counterparts.
Given their scarcity, there are strong opinions among transport operators as to who should get priority.
Indeed, representatives from the aviation and maritime industries argue that not only should they be at the front of the queue, but cars and trucks shouldn’t be in the queue at all.
Their argument is simple: Road vehicles already have a convenient means to slash emissions in electrification. Aircraft and ships, meanwhile, need green fuels to decarbonise.
In a recent statement, the European Community of Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) railed against moves to count the quantity of green fuels in the EU’s fuel mix towards CO2 targets for trucks and buses.
The ECSA argued that doing so “will generate an artificial demand for [alternative] fuels in road transport where other alternatives exist and will divert crucial quantities away from shipping and other hard-to-abate sectors, which have no other alternatives to decarbonise”.
Similarly, Carsten Spohr, the CEO of Lufthansa Group, Germany’s national air carrier, told Euractiv that excluding e-fuels from road vehicles is a matter of making the best use of scarce energy resources.
“If you have clean electrical energy, which we all know is very limited in this part of the world, and you either have the option to drive the car directly by the electric engine or by first turning it into fuel and then fuelling the combustion engine, the factor you lose energy by is six,” he said.
Considering this energy loss, using e-fuels for cars over direct electrification “wouldn’t make sense”, he concluded.
One may expect automakers to push back against the aircraft and maritime sectors with equal passion, arguing that e-fuels are a necessary part of the road vehicle ecosystem.
Yet most large vehicle manufacturers are quiet. Instead, the largest voices in support of providing e-fuels to cars and trucks tend to be luxury manufacturers (think Porsche) and the liquid fuels industry (such as oil companies that also produce e-fuels).
But as the need to slash emissions rises in the coming years, expect the jockeying for position in the green fuels queue to continue.
– Sean Goulding Carroll
German court ruling could endanger electric mobility and railway funding
Germany, already struggling to meet its climate targets in the transport sector, could see another setback for the transition.
Last Wednesday (15 November), a ruling by the country’s constitutional court nullified a decision to put €60 billion of unused debt from the COVID crisis into a climate fund, which was meant to finance climate investments over the next few years.
The €60 billion accounts for a quarter of the overall sum left in the “Climate and Transformation Fund”, which now will have to be either cut by that sum or require additional sources of funding.
Over the period of 2024 to 2027, the fund was meant to provide €13.8 billion for the uptake of electric mobility and charging infrastructure, and another €12.5 billion to modernise Germany’s ailing railway network.
German Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP/Renew Europe) has however ruled out the possibility of new taxes to close the funding gap, leaving spending cuts as the most likely outcome.
“We are now being forced to modernise the economy with fewer public subsidies,” he said, welcoming the ruling that helps him justify his course of less public spending.
However, if Germany misses its climate targets in the transport sector, this could also come with a big price tag, as the EU’s Effort Sharing Regulation would necessitate the country to buy emission allowances from other EU countries that overachieve their targets.
Given the current trajectory, by 2030, this could add up to €30 billion, according to experts. Cutting funding for climate investments now could thus backfire in a way that Lindner might not like.
– Jonathan Packroff
Scarce e-fuels and sustainable biofuels should be reserved for hard-to-decarbonise transport modes such as shipping, rather than going to trucks and buses where electrification is a viable option, shipowners argue.
Ministers, members of the European Parliament, and industry representatives have urged the European Commission to launch a dedicated strategy to boost the use of night trains across the bloc, arguing that now is the time to get behind the low-carbon travel option.
Businesses remain sceptical that a new EU certification framework for carbon removals is sufficient to generate a self-sustaining market, arguing Brussels must do more to make removing carbon from the atmosphere financially attractive.
After a ruling by Germany’s top court barred €60 billion from the government’s climate action fund, politicians are frantically searching for ways to close the gaping hole in the budget.
The European Commission launched infringement proceedings against Austria on Thursday for failing to comply with new EU rules on waste and railway standardisation.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]