The unthinkable is now achievable in Italy

December 17, 2021

Italy backs a 2035 phase-out, something unthinkable five years ago.

“Electric vehicles are a menace to the whole existence of our planet.” These were the words of FCA executive Sergio Marchionne back in 2017, who claimed that electric vehicles (EV) were worse for the planet than petrol and diesel cars. The consensus among leading Italian voices at the time was staunchly anti-EV. Set-up in that same year, T&E Italy got to work at setting the record straight.

Looking back, 2017 seems like a different era. Italy was aligned with the least progressive nations on automotive issues ever since the first car CO2 standards were adopted in 2007-8. While ‘Dieselgate’ shook consumers in many EU countries, in Italy it seemingly had no effect at all. In 2017, 55% of all cars in Italy were diesel. 

Bit by bit, chinks in the armour of this old thinking were starting to show. In 2018, for the first time, the whole Italian NGO community united in favour of electrification. This helped convince the newly appointed 5 Star Movement’s environment minister Sergio Costa position Italy in the progressive camp on the EU car CO2 revision that was finalised at the time.

It was a critical moment. With the fourth-highest population in Europe (third after Brexit), Italy holds considerable weight in the European Council. If Italy had stayed on the side of the non-progressives, the picture of Europe’s battle to decarbonise road transport could have looked very different.

In 2019 Italy adopted its national energy and climate plan. A coalition of NGOs managed to ensure cars’ electrification was one of the key priorities in the plan. By 2030 Italy should have 6 million EVs on its roads.

In three crazy days in January 2020, we saw two symbolic moments of change. On 14 January, T&E published a report titled New Diesel, New Problems. Two days later, the mayor of Rome took the historic step of banning Euro 6 diesel cars from accessing the city centre. This was a serious blow to diesel’s credibility and subsequently its market share, which has now dropped to 19%. On January 15, following T&E and Legambiente’s joint notification to the authorities, ENI was sentenced to a historic €5 million fine for greenwashing their EniDIESEL+ product. This was confirmed last month in a second antitrust hearing after Eni appealed the decision.

However, we had no time to celebrate those wins. The pandemic that shook the whole world just a few weeks later, shifted the battleground. It was now crucial to focus on preventing big bailouts from going to fossil fuels. A restless period of reacting, advocating, denouncing, calling for a green recovery all the way up to 2021.

2021 was a rollercoaster ride. It started with a government crisis that resulted in a freshly appointed government “of national unity” led by “Super Mario” (Draghi) to handle and propose how to spend the biggest injection of money the Italian economy has ever seen. The NGO community stood shoulder to shoulder to ensure green conditionalities were included and denounced the intrusive presence of blue hydrogen in the Italian recovery plan – something that the Commission, in the end, asked to be removed.

And then we come to the second half of 2021. When the EU Commission’s Fit for 55 package was published in July the reaction in Italy was mostly negative. 

In a big automotive congress we attended in October, the almost exclusively old, male panel (our Italy director was the only woman), the panelists derided renewables, Greta Thunberg and electric mobility. And yet, behind the scenes a very big shift was already underway. 

It was with this in mind that we responded to a hearing on the Fit for 55 Package held by the EU Affairs department of the Italian Council Presidency in early December.

But then the unthinkable happened. Exactly one week after the hearing, and five years after Marchionne’s famous words, Italy threw its weight behind the European Commission’s landmark proposal to phase-out fossil fuel cars by 2035. This is when we realised that all the seeds we had planted and watered, had finally and silently blossomed.

Italian Job done then? Sadly not. In our world, every achievement is just the beginning of a new set of challenges. But for the moment we can celebrate this milestone.

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