Out with the old (engines), in with the new (zero-emission mobility)

This op-ed was first published by EurActiv

Almost two months after most Europeans went into confinement and the economy came to a halt, life is slowly returning to normal. Our heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones. But alongside the health crisis, another gloom is entering our lives, the economic recession.

For many, the hard times will continue. 

Many governments and the EU are hastily putting in place hefty public stimulus programmes to relaunch the economy and bring jobs back. But we should not return to the fossil-based business as usual that has driven our planet’s climate and nature to the brink of collapse. NGOs, many businesses and the majority of EU environment ministers have all asked for the recovery to be green. 

What does this mean? 

Take cars as an example. Governments such as Germany are already mulling over financial support, referred to as scrappage schemes, to ensure the car industry can sell cars again. But anyone who followed such measures in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009 would tell you they are a waste of taxpayers’ money. People who are on low incomes or have just lost their jobs do not go out and buy new cars, even with a discount. Instead, those who would have bought a new car anyway simply bring their purchase forward. 

The lockdown has disproportionately hit small businesses, shops, art clubs and restaurants. Instead of handouts to pay for new cars, a more fair and effective way to restart the economy would be to support the sectors hit hardest. This will boost overall consumer purchase power. Then people will buy goods again, including cars.

So, how should governments support the car industry? 

The lockdown has shown to many what our cities (and skies!) can be like without toxic fumes from vehicle combustion engines. Recovery money should not bring back pollution and lock ourselves into fossil fuel technology, even the latest Euro 6d cars that can still be very polluting. It would be ludicrous to pay people to buy cars that cities want to ban soon after.

It is critical that we secure workers' jobs. This means the €5 billion the French government has handed out to Renault must not be used to pay dividends or buy back shares, but support employment. It also means that only future-proof powertrains should be supported to safeguard those jobs in the future. The principle should be no state-aid guarantees to produce more diesel or petrol engines. 

Rebooting demand is also crucial to the car industry's recovery. But no penny should be spent supporting the purchase of CO2-emitting engines. Carmakers need to comply with the 95g EU CO2 standard in 2020-21. It would be irresponsible for governments (or indeed the EU) to promote schemes that make achieving these legally-binding goals harder. This includes diesel, petrol and natural gas; old and new. This is not only about upfront purchase incentives. It is also about hidden tax breaks, including an idea in Germany to cut benefit-in-kind rates for combustion cars. Now is not the time to give new diesel SUVs a discount! 

The only acceptable public support is to accelerate the uptake of zero-emission, clean solutions. This means:

  • Incentives to only target zero-emission models, notably battery electric vehicles, with special support for lower income buyers and second-hand EVs;
  • Support private and public fleets to purchase new electric cars and vans; 
  • Boost spending on public transport and shared mobility, for example on electric buses; 
  • Pour public investment into charging infrastructure in private and public buildings, fast charging hubs for taxis, ride-hailing vehicles and vans, and across EU road network; 
  • Where state aid is given to ailing carmakers directly, it should come with conditions attached (no new combustion engine development) and support electric car production and supply chains such as batteries. 

How will this help the car industry? 

Before COVID-19 brought the economy to a halt, the electric car market in Europe was booming. This was in response to the EU car CO2 rules, as 95% of cars sold throughout 2020 have to be under 95g CO2/km. In Germany and France the sales of electric cars in March hit a record 9.2% and almost 12% respectively. The sales have soared elsewhere in Europe’s largest vehicle markets. 

It is no surprise that one of the first reopened VW factories is in Zwickau where the landmark VW electric car, the ID.3, is manufactured. Across Europe carmakers are investing dozens of billions into emobility and EV supply chains. Around 3.5 million electric cars are set to be produced in Europe in 2020-21, and a dozen of battery gigafactories by 2023. Just as COVID-19 hit, Europe’s carmakers were finally closing the gap with China and Tesla (whose stock is valued more than VW’s but it manufactures a fraction of the vehicles). Now is not the time to slow down and go back to engines. Now is the time to double down on electrification. 

Each electric car sold creates demand for charge points at our homes and work, creates a business case for the battery supply chain and repays the huge R&D investment Europe has already made. So, supporting a recovery rooted in zero-emission mobility and electrification is also smart industrial policy. 

Green Deal as the growth strategy 

With activity still in lockdown and huge public investment being poured into rebooting the economy, now is the chance to shape the recovery and build the mobility system we want as a society. But green should not be an empty word that companies and politicians add to the technology they want. As state aid and recovery packages are announced across Europe, the Commission should ensure only support for zero-emission technology and infrastructure are permitted. 

It’s time to put the money where grand words are. Propping up cars running on combustion engines will make the car industry's business model obsolete. Back in 2009 we spent billions on new cars that we were promised were clean, only to be repaid by the Dieselgate scandal a few years later. Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Out with the old, dirty engine, and in with the new zero-emission motor.


emma tristram's picture


Replacing petrol cars with electric cars is not going to affect carbon emissions enough to make a difference on climate change. It will not help congestion, particulates from tyres, car-dependency, or bad land use planning. Particularly now with Covid affecting the safety of public transport, TE should be fighting for a brake on new road building and much more investment in safe local walking and cycling routes.

Anthony Lambert's picture


Absolutely right – about 50% of particulates come from tyres and brakes so electric cars are no solution. We know that healthy people have been less susceptible to Covid-19 (as well as numerous other health conditions) so the emphasis should be on active travel – walking and cycling. Road building or supporting the car industry as an economic stimulus are completely counter-productive in the long term. The problems of climate change will dwarf coronavirus

Luichi's picture


what would you choose to do: either banning EV's because of their particle-emmiting brakes and tyres?, or invest in R&D that resolve those problems, like vacuum pumps that succionate particles during braking?
what creates knowledge, jobs, added-value, benefits, fiscal benefits and ultimately welfare?
guess it while China and America do the job

José Ramón García Santamaría's picture


If EVs already reduce 50% of particles emission (I dispute if only 50%) then EVs ARE the solution. EVs do not reduce brake system dimensions, but hugely reduce brake pad wear. Advice on going walking to work, to do your groceries etc is, apologies, unrealistic and just detracts from the credibility that vehicle electrification deserves: it endangers its success by introducing useless “noise”. People need mobility for a number of reasons. Mobility has incredible positive social and economic effects. There is so much work to do. So let’s feel responsible to bring pragmatic solutions to our realities.

John Wormald's picture


Rail was the dominant land transport form in the 19th century. Cars and trucks largely (but by no means totally) displaced it in the 20th. In the 21st century, electronic communications are partly substituting for physical movement. Covid-19 has not only administered a severe short-term demand shock to the automotive industry, it has probably also brought forward the substitution trend. In its current form, this increasingly looks like a sunset industry. The sustainable solutions do not lie on the supply side, i.e. electric drives within existing types of vehicles, but in offering alternatives to physical mobility and how we satisfy demands for it. For a striking illustration of the growth, decline and collapse of an automotive industry, readers might be interested in our book, National Policy, Global Giants - how Australia Built and Lost its Automotive Industry, by John Wormald and Kim Rennick, Cambridge University Press. The story told is much wider than just that of Australia, focusing on government support for particular sectors.

Annick Roetynck's picture


It is very disappointing to find that T&E almost systematically overlooks (?), forgets (?), ignores (?) the potential of light, electric vehicles in establishing sustainable mobility. LEVA-EU believes that this potential is hugely underestimated. A growing peloton of EU cities is banning cars alltogether, no matter whether they are electric or have an ICE. Since the Corona virus, many cities in Europe turn to walking, (e)cycling and the use of other LEVs as partial solutions for keeping distance. It is ironic that a quarter of a million deaths (sofar) was enough to convince people to limit their travel to essential trips. Before 4.2 million deaths EVERY year from air pollution were unconvincing to drastically change mobility. Electric cars may well be a piece of the puzzle but no more than that. LEVs prove to be truly sustainable and truly contributing not only to sustainable transport but to general public well being. We would be happy to further discuss the potential of LEVs with T&E.

Jeff's picture


E-cars are only acceptable if they are small, show a high occupancy rate, and just allow you to get to the nearest station to catch the train.

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About the author

Julia Poliscanova's picture

Senior Director, Vehicles and Emobility