Greetings from Planet Diesel

Last week I was in Munich for the so-called LKW-Gipfel; a summit of Europe’s truck industry executives. The Gipfel had an impressive line up. But before the CEOs of MAN, IVECO, Volvo and Scania delivered their keynotes, Matthias Wissmann, the German automotive industry’s (VDA) chief lobbyist, was given the stage.

Wissmann (pictured, above right, with Germany's commissioner, Günther Oettinger, and the European auto industry's chief lobbyist, Erik Jonnaert) had a relatively simple message for the audience: ‘We are doing well, the climate targets are unrealistic and regulators should stay out of our business.’ His main spiel was about trucks but he allowed himself a diversion into passenger cars where he praised the ‘intelligent climate commissioner’ for the car CO2 proposal while ‘lashing out at Industry Commissioner Bieńkowska’ who is apparently not doing what she is supposed to do. Seldom have I seen a car executive so pleased with a European Commission proposal. Of course, that’s no surprise. We know Mr Wissmann had a heavy hand in the final drafting of the Commission proposal.

One point Wissman kept coming back to was technology neutrality. Regulators should not pick winners! This was then followed by an impassioned defense of diesel and the ‘verbrenner’ (combustion engine).

This goes right to the heart of what the technology neutrality discussion is all about: keeping diesel alive in Europe. That is, of course, far from a neutral choice. Europe’s high level of dieselisation is the direct result of decades of pro-diesel ‘industrial policy’ built around low diesel tax, lax air pollution standards and a deliberate blindness to diesel’s real-world emissions problem. Keeping this pro-diesel system in place and avoiding a strong push towards zero-emission vehicles is the top priority for European carmakers, component suppliers and oil companies. That’s why they act shocked when it is suggested that in 13 years’ time a third of new cars should be zero-emission vehicles. That’s also why the oil industry is putting out ‘studies’ that show electric vehicles are no better than ‘clean diesel’ when it comes to air pollution.

As part of the big ‘technology neutrality’ offensive, Wissmann and co. are on a mission to convince the world that electrofuels or power to liquids are what’s needed to decarbonise road transport. This is a smokescreen. Anyone who has had a look at the efficiency and costs – which includes the VDA itself – would know it is preposterous to produce power-to-liquid fuels on a scale to replace road transport fuels. A study we published earlier this month shows that powering a highly efficient European vehicle fleet with electrofuels would require 1.5 times the current electricity generation. If we want electrofuels to be low carbon it also means that all this electricity has to be renewable and the CO2 – an essential ‘ingredient’ of electrofuels – captured from the air. The cost would be up to €4.50 per litre of fuel. And this is supposed to work not just in Europe, but across the globe.

Of course the feasibility or cost of electrofuels are irrelevant. The discussion about electrofuels serves the same purpose as the discussion about biofuels 10 years ago: to distract attention from the need to both clean up the new vehicle fleet and push carmakers to go beyond petrol, diesel or their other distraction, natural gas.

The contrast between Wissmann’s utter cynicism and the upbeat keynote speeches of the truck CEOs was another interesting feature of the conference. There is a clear division of labour between the companies and their lobby umbrella. MAN and Scania talked about how forward looking and cooperative they are – CO2 standards are not a problem, we’re investing in e-mobility – while Wissmann did the dirty job of explaining that truck CO2 standards are a bureaucratic conspiracy against an industry that is already performing very well. We also saw this in the run up to the car CO2 proposal: Volkswagen said they could live with aggressive EU targets for zero-emission vehicles while at the same time they let Wissmann off the leash in Brussels to gut the Commission proposal.

It makes one wonder on what planet do Wissmann and the German car and truck manufacturers live. Planet Diesel, we guess.

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About the author

William Todts's picture

Executive Director

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