Behind the Scenes: Devil makes work for idle engines

Behind the Scenes: Devil makes work for idle engines
Credit: Greenpeace DE


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Germany’s drive-by shooting of an EU ban on combustion engines has ramifications beyond just the automobile sector. Its impact risks jeopardising far more than cars.

It is the issue that refuses to go away. The debate that is sucking all of the oxygen out of the room and undermining how the European Union does business.

When Germany refused to rubber stamp a done-deal on zero emission vehicles Berlin did not so much put national interests above the common good, it championed a selection of industry interests and infected EU politics with its fractious coalition idiosyncrasies. 

That has turned us all down a dangerous road.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

There are two very important points linked to this whole EU engine "ban" saga and they are as follows.

First, Germany has not wielded a veto to get its way, it has exploited the fact that qualified majority voting (QMV) is calculated using population size. As the EU’s biggest country it does not need many allies to put the brakes on.

As mentioned in a previous column, Berlin ought to think very carefully about what it is doing and messing with the way the EU works. This agreement was done and dusted, Germany decided not even at the eleventh hour to undermine the deal.

It shows that vetoes – which can be used in areas like tax and foreign affairs – will not be disappearing anytime soon, considering that you could argue that Berlin and to a lesser extent Paris have a potential veto over every other aspect of policymaking.

Why would smaller countries like Estonia, for example, which have rightfully been vindicated in areas like foreign policy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even consider scrapping vetoes totally, as has often been suggested by pro-reform champions.

Olaf Scholz’s government has previously supported the idea of moving to QMV for more policies, as part of an effort to allow the EU to be quicker in reacting to geopolitical priorities. This will now be nothing more than an empty talking point.

Disruptive forces like Hungary and Poland, which have on more than one occasion effectively held the EU to ransom in order to get concessions or exemptions will continue to hold a trump card in negotiations.

Second, this law is supposed to come to a head in 2035, more than a decade from now. Yet it is already soaking up bandwidth and detracting from far more pressing matters. This week’s European Council meeting was proof of that.

Leaders were essentially held hostage by the issue and important points like the EU’s trade deal with the Mercosur bloc were given very little time. Just like on the streets of most European cities, the car is still king.

In the same week that the UN's top scientists released yet another landmark climate report warning once again how dire global heating is set to be, prime ministers and presidents were locked in a room arguing about what kind of fuel can go in Christian Lindner's Mercedes.

This saga will be repeated down the line as well, given that the European Commission has now struck a deal with Germany.

E-fuel’s gold

E-fuels, the magic climate-neutral fuels at the heart of this dispute, are by no means an easy issue to explain to the uninitiated, especially since there are few examples of real-world application to point towards.

Production is somewhat complicated, in that you need a renewable energy source to power the process and waste CO2 as a feedstock. This is what makes them climate-neutral: the CO2 expelled by the engine was already drawn out of the atmosphere.

Germany is essentially asking the European Commission to create an entirely new vehicle class with engines that can only run on e-fuel. Electronic software would theoretically detect when non-permitted fuel is added to the system.

That will not come cheap. Are car manufacturers really going to invest in that kind of technology and will motorists pay for the privilege of continuing to fill up their cars rather than charge them? 

It is already clear that the potential to game the system is immense: was the renewable energy used really renewable? Was green power used to capture the CO2? Is the e-fuel 100% e-fuel or a blend? Was it transported by vehicles running ‘climate-neutral’ engines?

You can already predict that an entire grey economy based around gaming e-fuel cars would spring up and TikTok videos showing you how to cheat the software would get millions and millions of views.

More pertinent still is that e-fuels will be needed by the transport industry, just not in the passenger car sector. Aviation and shipping are two major candidates to go down this technological route given the challenges involved with electrifying such large vehicles.

Setting up supply chains and distribution networks that cater for BMWs and Range Rovers, therefore, can only be counterproductive. Better to focus whatever eventual e-fuel deployment materialises where it is actually needed.

Giving the automobile industry e-fuels is like giving insulin injections to people who are gluten intolerant and ignoring actual diabetics. The former should just get over the fact they cannot drink regular beers and switch to wine (it is better anyway).

There is another parallel in the energy sector: heating. Hydrogen is still being pushed as a solution, especially by the gas industry, which sees the fuel as a way to hang onto its infrastructure.

But every legitimate study and analysis out there will tell you that it is a total waste of what is another precious commodity, which is again being touted instead of the obvious, cheaper and easier answer: electrification.

You could cite the German government’s e-fuel demands as a definition of ‘over-engineering’ in the dictionary. They want a solution to a problem of their own making and one which actually has a very simple answer: kill the combustion engine, mourn it and move on.

Why must people insist on making life more difficult than it needs to be?

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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