EU tightens road vehicle pollution standards ahead of electric switch

The long-awaited European Commission proposal to reduce air pollution from vehicles was released Thursday (10 November), modestly tightening exhaust emission standards for cars and vans and placing limits on particles shed from brakes and tyres for the first time. 

The new Euro 7 regulation is set to come into force from July 2025 for cars and vans, and July 2027 for trucks and buses.

In drafting the measures, the Commission said it weighed the need to cut combustion engine pollution with the extra costs that such a measure would impose on an auto industry already investing heavily in the switch to zero-emission vehicles.

Recently agreed EU legislation means that only zero-emission vehicles may be sold from 2035, de facto obliging car makers to embrace electric or hydrogen technology.

The new Euro 7 standards can be achieved using technology already available, according to the Commission, avoiding the need for carmakers to develop new combustion engine prototypes.

Brussels was also wary of adding to the purchase cost of a new vehicle at a time of soaring inflation. According to EU estimates, the Euro 7 standards will impose up to a 0.6% increase in the price of a new car or van. The impact on lorries and buses is expected to be greater, with up to a 3.1% rise.

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said the new rules would “work hand in hand” with the CO2-emissions standards to deliver cleaner air in cities.

While some have questioned the need to revise vehicle air pollution standards given the impending switch to zero-emission technology, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said that the standards “will ensure that combustion engine cars put on our market until 2035… are as clean as possible for as long as possible, wherever they are used.”

Speaking to reporters, Breton said that around 20% of vehicles on EU roads will remain combustion engines in 2050, and that the figure will likely be much higher in foreign markets, such as in Asia and Latin America.

The standards are also necessary to rein in emissions from brakes and tyres, which will not be curtailed by the switch to an all-electric fleet, according to Breton.

While regenerative braking – a means of stopping in which the electric motor slows down the vehicle without the use of brake pads – helps to reduce particles emitted from brakes, the increased weight of electric vehicles means they are more likely to shed particles from tyres than a similarly-sized combustion engine counterpart.

New technical standards
Under the proposal, the lowest exhaust emission values possible under Euro 6 will be made mandatory for cars and vans. These standards will better take into account real driving conditions in cities, such as frequent stopping and starting.

Trucks, however, face stricter limits, as they are expected to rely on combustion engine technologies for longer.

Cars and vans will need to comply with the Euro 7 rules for twice as long as was the case under Euro 6, with the compliance window extended to 10 years and 200,000 kilometres driven.

While a standard to monitor brake emissions is available, there is currently no agreed methodology to measure the shedding of microplastics from tyres. Instead, legislators will wait to see the outcome of discussions at the UN level, expected to come in 2024.

The legislation also tackles electric vehicle batteries, which must meet new durability standards.

To prevent a repeat of the Dieselgate scandal, in which technology was used to trick emissions tests, Euro 7 obliges vehicles to use sensors to measure emissions throughout the vehicle’s life.

This information will be available to the driver, alerting them when their vehicle is in breach of emission standards.

Digital solutions can also enable “geo-fencing”, which would theoretically allow hybrid cars to switch to the electric engine when entering a low-emission zone, according to an EU official.

Both industry and green activists were critical towards the proposal, though for different reasons.

Vehicle manufacturer trade association ACEA said the proposal will slow down the shift to zero-emission vehicles, particularly for trucks, by absorbing financial resources.

The new legislation has limited environmental benefit but “heavily increases the cost of vehicles,” Oliver Zipse, ACEA president and CEO of BMW, said in a statement.

The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) argued that the deadlines contained in the regulation cannot be met.

“The EU Commission’s proposal published today does not aim for balance and feasibility, but for unrealistic extreme targets. For passenger cars and light commercial vehicles, the limit value reductions are nominally lower, but the timing is not feasible,” Hildegard Müller, president of the German industry association VDA, said in a statement.

Clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), however, took aim at the Commission for not placing stricter pollution limits on new vehicles.

“The proposals for cars are so weak, the auto industry might have drafted them themselves,” said Anna Krajinska, vehicle emissions and air quality manager at T&E.

“Despite enjoying record profits, carmakers have sold the Commission a lie that an ambitious Euro 7 is unaffordable,” she added.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Packroff.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]


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