Truck emissions rules get green light from EU capitals, tough talks loom

Difficult talks await in the new year about how best to regulate CO2 emissions from the heavy-duty vehicle sector. [Shutterstock]

EU environment ministers agreed on heavy-duty vehicle CO2 emission rules on Thursday (20 December), teeing up difficult talks with the European Parliament in January.

The EU has never regulated carbon dioxide emissions from heavy vehicles before but took a big step towards doing so at a meeting of environment ministers in Brussels yesterday.

Member state representatives agreed on a joint negotiating position and will now lock horns with MEPs and the European Commission behind closed doors in the new year.

As part of their agreement, the EU Council of Ministers decided to tweak the Commission’s initial proposal. Although sticking with the EU executive’s 15% and 30% reduction targets for 2025 and 2030, the Council decided to make the latter a binding benchmark. Only the 2025 target was binding until now.

Truck emissions and the Pandora’s Box of ambition

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.

In order to help tackle the transport sector’s problematic contribution to climate change, the EU’s heavy-duty vehicle fleets will have to make emission cuts compared to a baseline level to be taken next year.

Austrian sustainability minister Elisabeth Köstinger, whose nation’s chairing of the rotating EU presidency draws to a close this week, said that the rules will cut 54 million tonnes of CO2 in the next decade, “which corresponds to the total yearly CO2 emissions of Sweden”.

The Council acknowledged the risk of regulating trucks and buses for the first time by agreeing that the rules should be reviewed in 2022.

Not only could the ambition of the overall targets be altered at that time but the 2030 goal could also be downgraded to an indicative-only mark if progress is deemed insufficient.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU) welcomed the Council’s “sensible approach”. In a statement, it said “setting the target before knowing which technologies can meet this ambition is unrealistic”.

IRU added that the 30% target can only be met by using a “well-to-wheel (WTW) approach that takes into account the role of advanced renewable and synthetic liquid and gaseous fuels used in internal combustion engines”.

The association called on the EU to make sure that WTW is implemented during the 2022 revision. 

But the Council’s common position was given short shrift elsewhere, with the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) voicing their concerns about the timeline and strictness of the overall targets.

ACEA boss Erik Jonnaert insisted that “what is possible for cars is often not an option for trucks”, citing this regulation’s light-vehicles equivalent, which was belatedly finalised by negotiators earlier this week.

EU agrees on 37.5% CO2 reduction for cars by 2030

EU negotiators on Monday evening (17 December) agreed on CO2 emission rules for cars and vans, as the Austrian presidency of the EU defied expectations and brokered a compromise.

Jonnaert also warned that the use of 2019 as a baseline does not give manufacturers an early enough indication of what targets they will have to work towards and added that refuelling points for alternatively-powered vehicles are still not sufficiently in place.

“Truck makers are willing to further cut carbon emissions but this should happen at a pace that is realistic, as it will not be possible with today’s technology alone,” Jonnaert said in a statement.

ACEA has lobbied for far lower reduction targets for trucks of 7% by 2025 and 16% by 2030. Its main argument is that the potential for electrifying truck fleets is far lower than for cars and that it would only really work for short trips within cities, but not for long-haul transit.

Truck makers tone down criticism of Europe’s CO2 regulation

Under pressure from regulators, truck makers have softened their criticism of Europe’s first-ever regulation on CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, focusing their comments on the lack of recharging infrastructure in cities and motorways.

‘Supercredits’ to be scrapped in 2024

Green mobility NGO Transport & Environment also took issue with the Council’s work, saying it is an important step in agreeing the EU’s first-ever CO2 reduction targets for trucks but warning that it is not enough to live up to the EU’s Paris Agreement commitments.

“A majority of countries, including key truck manufacturing nations such us France, Sweden and the Netherlands, called for more ambition and incentives for zero and low-emission trucks but accepted this compromise to avoid a blocking minority led by Germany,” T&E said in a statement.

T&E also denounced the Council’s backing of a ‘super-credit’ system, whereby sales of zero-emission trucks are counted double towards meeting the CO2 targets. But it did acknowledge that ministers agreed to review it in 2024 and replace the system with sales targets for zero and low-emission as of 2025.

“T&E welcomes that supercredits will be deleted because they are an accounting trick,” it said, adding: “The sales target is also supported by big businesses including IKEA, Unilever, Carrefour and Nestlé, as well as logistics companies and hauliers, because it will expand the supply and bring down costs of these vehicles.”

Truck expert Stef Cornelis said “the upcoming [Romanian] Presidency should now move towards the European Parliament position and adopt higher CO2 targets and sales targets for zero-emission trucks”.

MEPs already agreed on their negotiating position in mid-November, signing off on a report penned by Greens lawmaker Bas Eickhout.

MEPs keep on trucking, back higher CO2 targets

Members of the European Parliament voted on Wednesday (14 November) to beef up a first attempt to regulate CO2 emissions from heavy vehicles, going beyond what the European Commission originally proposed.

Parliament and Council on a collision course

Parliament went for reduction goals of 20% and 35%, as well as sales targets for zero and low-emissions vehicles (ZLEV) of 5% and 20% for 2025 and 2030, putting MEPs on a collision course with the Council and even the Commission.

MEPs initially wanted to set a separate bus and coach ZLEV target but the amendment was struck down in a final vote. Ministers did manage to preclude them from their super-credit system though.

Eickhout told EURACTIV that he is “looking forward to the negotiations”, suggesting that more progressive member states held back during the Council horse-trading, in order to circumvent a blocking minority helmed by Germany.

After a short Christmas break, the file will be back on the table during trilateral talks pencilled in for 8 January.

Given that the Parliament goes on unofficial recess in April due to the upcoming European elections, it could be a hard ask for the regulation to be done and dusted under the Romanian Presidency.

'We don't have to rush our trucks legislation', warns MEP

The head of the European Parliament’s environment committee has urged her MEP colleagues not to rush the adoption of new EU rules on heavy-duty vehicle emissions, casting doubt on whether the Third Mobility Package can be finalised under this current Parliament.

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