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Keit Pentus-Rosimannus: The EU transport sector's green plan has so far failed

Keit Pentus-Rosimannus.
Keit Pentus-Rosimannus. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Transitioning to electric cars-only in the European Union by 2035 is in doubt, as plans to cut Carbon Dioxide emissions from vehicles using fossil fuels has not been a success, Estonia's representative at the European Court of Auditors (ECA) Keit Pentus-Rosimannus says.

Since the transport sector cannot meet the CO2 reduction goals, these plans and goals are in need of revision, Pentus-Rosimannus said in an interview given to ERR and which follows in its entirety.

What is the current biggest concern facing the transport sector in Europe? Why has adopting e-vehicles gone at a slower pace than forecast? 

The largest concern from the entire transport sector is that, despite some very lofty goals, emissions from transport simply have not been falling. Naturally, the plan to cut CO2 emissions has not started to function. In recent years, we have been seeing that emissions from passenger cars have started to creep downwards a bit, but this is related to the advent of e-vehicles. The hope that new internal combustion engines which use improved technology will also bring lower emissions with them has also actually not turned out to be the case, whatsoever. In fact this has unfortunately turned out to prove to be a myth.

In the case of electric cars, it is understandable that replacing all the vehicles on the EU's streets and roads wildly mass-scale undertaking. In any case, it is highly, highly time consuming. A pace of transition like that has its rationale. The ECA's role here is to look at whether what has been done so far has worked out in practice. Yet the answer is, that it hasn't worked out. This means current plans and measures must be subject to review.  

What does this mean, even stricter requirements for manufacturers and those buying internal combustion engine cars?

The norms themselves are very strict on paper. Furthermore, CO2 measurements made under laboratory conditions are very nice on their own. However, up to now, EU regulations have been such that automotive manufacturers have really been required to provide the results of tests carried out in laboratory conditions purely and solely. However, this is far from what happens in normal traffic.

The European Commission now also monitors the volume of actual emissions in normal traffic and compares them against the values obtained in the laboratory. You can be quite certain that things will not be allowed to simply continue go on like this. That's one aspect of this...

In the case of e-vehicles, the price has certainly proven too high for the average worker for wider use. But electric cars have even more obstacles than that.

For instance, the access of European car manufacturers to the input materials needed in producing e-vehicle batteries actually becomes harder year by year, and not vice versa. This, in turn, will surely serve to slow up the pace of car production.

Added to this, a convenient and logical charging station infrastructure is absent in many EU member states. This is certainly one argument in favor of not replacing cars with a gasoline or diesel engine with an electric car, and in fact to purchase a new vehicle which does have an internal combustion engine, instead.

These are all things which need to be addressed and critically reviewed ahead of the wider adoption of e-vehicles. Tightening the requirements, or adding more screws may not bring the desired result. Instead, our recommendation is certainly to find out where the real obstacles are. Too lenient requirements do not constitute an obstacle here.

If we look at the pace of the introduction of electric cars, how this has gone, and what difficulties have clearly emerged, how realistic can it be that by 2035, e-vehicles only may be bought new from the retailers? Hasn't there been a substantial breakthrough?

Actually, if we look at the sale of electric cars, in 2018 one out of every hundred cars sold was an e-vehicle, but, as of 2022, every seventh car sold was already an electric car. This pace of change has been considerable, bu,t understandably, these are newly registered vehicles.

People who bought a new car a few years ago are not necessarily going to exchange it for an electric car, or to get an additional electric car for their family.

Needless to say the pace of the arrival of electric cars could vary over time.

How realistic is a full transition to electric vehicles by 2035? We are actually aware that there are member states that have been highly critical on this matter, precisely for the reasons I have just outlined.

Should we not be able to gain access to the input raw materials needed to manufacture batteries, and sufficiently quickly, we may be able to set the bar very high, but obstacles then arise in different places.

To sum up, with every goal, when you prepare for it thoroughly, think it through, and really deal with the hindrances, you can accomplish all kinds of things. But in order to achieve this you surely have to really act, and not just set goals, or new, very rigid requirements, just on paper.

Often the requirements and goals on paper may not tally with reality.

The transition to Euro7 [deal on new EU rules to reduce road transport emissions] requirements are supposed to cut CO2 emissions but, according to retailers, the price of a vehicle which has an internal combustion engine will rise by a few thousand euros. However, a report from the ECA does not mention any substantive progress.

In recent years, under conditions of stricter checks, emissions from gasoline-powered cars have fallen on average by just over 4 percent. There had really been no improvement at all up to 2020.

All areas where CO2 emissions occur or which relate to CO2 emissions have certainly seen these emissions reduced quite well, and the only area showing growth in numbers comes in transport. Compared with the picture in 1990, growth has been at 16 percent. The share of the transport sector within overall total emissions comes to 23 percent. Of this, the thinking is often that, okay, cars do not emit very much, but actually, cars were responsible for 56 percent of the total emissions from the transport sector (ie. from the 23 percent overall – ed.).

But if we take a closer look at the outcome of all these efforts: A new passenger car costs 10 percent than it had done, yet we have only achieved a 4 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. That does not balance out, does it?

Yes, I agree about that. The plans in respect of new cars reducing emissions have been wide-ranging. But it is indeed the case that these plans have not been fully realized, and over a long period of time.

However, as I said before, when the goals are clear, ultimately, opportunities will be found.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi

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