Truck emissions and the Pandora’s Box of ambition

Harder than it looks: regulating truck CO2 emissions is proving to be a divisive issue. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Taming heavy road transport emissions.

EU lawmakers are currently tinkering with the European Commission’s first attempt to regulate heavy-duty vehicle CO2 emissions. But a debate is now raging about how strict those cuts should be and how soon they should be enforced.

Carbon dioxide emissions from heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) must fall by 15% by 2025, according to the Commission proposal, published in May. It also includes a non-binding 30% CO2 reduction target for 2030.

Members of the European Parliament are now deliberating over a draft report by Greens lawmaker Bas Eickhout, which ups those benchmarks to 20% and 45%, respectively.

Other political groups in the assembly are pushing for even higher targets and EU countries like the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg all want long-term goals put in place.

The Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) is meant to vote on the report in mid-October but doubts have been raised about the assembly’s quest for more ambitious targets within such a short timeframe.

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An arms race to “raise ambition with a capital ‘A'” would be counterproductive, warned Adina-Ioana Vălean, the chair of ENVI, who hails from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).

“Simply opening the Pandora’s Box of ambition, without increasing sales [of low and zero emission vehicles] at home and abroad is pointless,” she told the European Transport Forum (ETF) in Brussels on Tuesday (25 September).

The Romanian lawmaker also cast doubt on whether “sustainable legislation” could be passed by the Parliament before its mandate ends in May.

Vălean’s note of caution was reflected in part by the ETF audience, who were asked to vote electronically on whether the Commission’s proposal had struck the right balance or not.

Half the participants said that the proposal’s targets were adequate but needed additional measures, while 25% said it was not ambitious enough. Just 5% backed the EU executive’s effort in its current form.

But Eickhout, who could not attend the forum as planned due to other commitments, told EURACTIV after the event that he intends to stick to his proposed targets, adding that “a clear majority around the table does see the urgency of getting the legislation passed”.

Sceptical industry

Manufacturers are still dubious about whether the 2025 binding target is actually achievable or not. The Volvo Group’s environmental affairs chief, Rolf Willkrans, insisted that truck designs and tech for seven years time are already finalised.

2025 is “closer than you may think”, Willkrans cautioned, pointing to the long-lasting nature of heavy-duty vehicles, many of which are expected to run for over a million kilometres with only regular servicing.

But the head of road transport at the European Commission’s climate directorate, Alexandre Paquot, dismissed those fears, explaining that the EU executive’s modelling was based “on a detailed analysis” and that the 15% target was “feasible in 2025 with existing technology”.

That has not stopped members of the industry proposing a 7% target instead, ahead of a more concerted effort towards the end of the decade, once buying cycles ramp up again and the market responds to the new technology.

Truck makers push back against EU’s first ever CO2 limits

The European Commission’s proposal to mandate a 15% cut in CO2 emission from trucks by 2025 is overly ambitious, according to industry association ACEA, which said a 7% objective would be more “realistic” given the technologies currently available.

Tinkering with trucks

Regulating the heavy-duty sector is set to get a shot in the arm next year, according to Paquot, who confirmed that the Vehicle Energy Consumption Calculation Tool (VECTO) will be ready in 2019.

VECTO is a simulation tool that is meant to accurately simulate carbon emissions from heavy-duty vehicles and will be essential if plans to introduce road pricing based on pollution are to come to fruition.

MEPs back road tolls based on CO2 emissions

Road tolls for trucks should be based on how much CO2 vehicles emit, according to a draft report adopted by the European Parliament’s transport committee on Thursday (24 May).

Such a polluter-pays model was supported by the head of service provider Vos Logistics, Frank Verhoeven, whose company boasts a fleet of over 1,000 heavy vehicles.

Verhoeven suggested that the market should be regulated by making clean transport cheaper per kilometre than more polluting transport, as it would promote the development of new technology.

The logistics CEO also championed efficiency efforts as a way to bring down fuel consumption, over the riskier strategy of expecting operators to shell out for expensive new vehicles.

Verhoeven explained that drivers should be taught how best to handle their vehicles in order to squeeze the maximum out of a tank of fuel, adding that 35% of trucks run empty through Europe, meaning better load management could also yield big results.

The Commission is expected to come out with a regulation in 2022 on truck trailers and Verhoeven insisted that it could prove to be “a quantum leap for CO2 reduction” if the trailers are allowed to be longer.

Other measures like ‘platooning’, a semi-automated driving technique that puts two or three trucks within close proximity of one another on highways, was also mentioned as a low-hanging fruit. Platooning reduces fuel consumption by up to 10% through the use of connected car technology.

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The tech neutrality conundrum

EU legislation is meant to be technology neutral, i.e. in the case of transport, non-discriminatory against certain fuels. But, just like the car and van legislation, the Commission’s effort has been criticised for overly favouring electrification.

Alexandre Paquot dismissed those criticisms though, saying “it is fully up to manufacturers to decide how to meet targets”.

“We have no particular religion for technology,” the EU official assured the ETF crowd.

Eickhout’s draft report includes low and zero emission vehicle sales targets and has even headed off a potential loophole by proposing a separate target for electric buses, which are seen as an easy out for manufacturers.

Electrifying heavy-duty trucks would indeed be a tall order and is “no silver bullet”, Paquot acknowledged. Their power demands are far greater than light vehicles and separate infrastructure is needed due to needs like increased voltage and more spacious charging areas.

John Cooper, the head of EU refining industry association FuelsEurope, admitted that battery power is making a “good contribution” to light transportation but insisted that petrochemicals remain the best energy storage option for heavier vehicles.

EU’s car emission goals for 2030 stir up ‘tech neutrality’ debate

The European Commission’s latest proposal on car’s CO2 emissions for 2030 has started a fresh debate about whether Brussels has actually dropped its long-standing “technological neutrality” stance in favour of electric cars.

The ENVI committee will meet on the 18 October to vote on Eickhout’s report, as well as consider opinions from other committees.

If the report is passed then it is likely that a full plenary sitting of the Parliament will be asked to vote, given the apparent divisions between MEPs on how best to tackle what is proving to be an extremely divisive issue.

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