What are e-fuels, and can they help make cars CO2-free?

Germany opposes EU on ending sales of ICE cars, demands e-fuel-powered ICE cars sales

Germany has announced its opposition to a significant European Union law aimed at ending the sales of CO2-emitting cars by 2035. The country is requesting permission for sales of new internal combustion engine cars to continue after that date, as long as they run on e-fuels. From 2035, the European Union (EU) would enforce rules mandating zero CO2 emissions in all new cars sold, thereby making it virtually impracticable to sell new cars that rely on fossil fuels. The implementation of these rules would effectively result in the phasing out of new fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

What are e-fuels, and can they help make cars CO2-free?
Image credits- Economic Times

Previously, Germany was among the majority of EU countries and lawmakers that supported the EU law requiring all new cars sold from 2035 to have zero CO2 emissions, which effectively made it impossible to sell new fossil fuel-powered cars. Although the law did not explicitly ban internal combustion engines (ICEs), it was considered a death knell for the technology due to the lack of options available to enable ICE cars to operate without producing CO2.

However, Germany and Italy are now seeking clearer assurances from the EU that sales of new ICE cars can continue beyond 2035, provided that they run on CO2-neutral fuels like e-fuels. E-fuels are synthesized from captured CO2 emissions and hydrogen produced using renewable or CO2-free electricity, making them CO2-neutral overall. While most major carmakers are betting on battery-electric vehicles to reduce CO2 emissions, some suppliers, oil majors, and carmakers still support e-fuels because they don’t want their vehicles weighed down by heavy batteries. However, e-fuels are not yet produced at scale, with the world’s first commercial plant backed by Porsche opening in Chile in 2021, and other planned plants set to begin production in the coming years.

E-fuel for cars

Using e-fuels in an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is a potential solution for reducing the CO2 emissions of existing cars, without the need to replace them with electric vehicles. However, critics argue that producing e-fuels is costly and energy-intensive, requiring around five times more renewable electricity than running a battery-electric vehicle. Some policymakers suggest that e-fuels should be reserved for difficult-to-decarbonize sectors such as aviation and shipping, rather than passenger cars. Germany’s recent opposition to an EU law requiring zero CO2 emissions from new cars sold after 2035 has put the law on hold, surprising other EU policymakers who had already agreed on it.

The European Commission has formulated a proposition, as reported by Reuters, in reaction to Germany’s opposition to the EU law ending the sale of CO2-emitting cars in 2035. The proposal would permit the registration of new cars in the EU that solely operate on climate-neutral e-fuels, which could serve as an initial move towards allowing their sale beyond 2035.