You could call it a love letter to the planet. On Valentine’s Day, European Union legislators voted to formally ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and bans by 2035.
At the time, it seemed like one of the biggest and most final nails in the coffin yet for internal combustion. Here were 27 countries representing the world’s largest trading bloc, telling their automotive industry – and the global auto business as a whole – that the future of driving will be free of carbon emissions, the ultimate goal of the policy. Realistically, that means a future powered by battery-electric vehicles.
But like many storied romances, this one has proven to be exceptionally torrid behind the scenes. Fast forward a few weeks and the EU’s vote to ban petrol and diesel vehicles is embroiled by political combat, last-ditch attempts to save internal combustion, and concerns over the future of Europe’s entire automotive sector.
Multiple industry sources, analysts and environmental experts told InsideEVs that combustion engine bans are in fact moving the auto industry toward an electric future.
It’s emerged as the perfect example of how impactful internal combustion bans can be, but also how complex and fraught they are – and likely will be in the years to come.
Granted, numerous automakers have already said they will largely, or entirely, end internal combustion engine production by the mid-2030s. But multiple industry sources, analysts and environmental experts told InsideEVs that such policies are in fact moving the auto industry toward an electric future.
Even the discussions around such bans, whether they’re at the city, state, national, or bloc level, are already moving people away from petrol vehicles, said Julia Poliscanova, the Senior Director of Vehicles and E-Mobility for Transport & Environment, a European NGO focused on zero-emissions policies.
Photo Credit: Stefan Leichsenring
“The whole point of it makes citizens consider what they're buying, and we already see today in Europe,” Poliscanova said, referring to how EVs made up 14 percent of Europe’s new-car market in 2022. “We’re ahead of schedule because people know this is coming and they change their behaviour.”
Still, the EU’s ICE ban now faces tough opposition from Germany and Italy, albeit for different reasons. And even if the auto industry is very clearly headed toward a battery-focused model, what happens next in Europe “is the million-dollar question,” Poliscanova said.
Traffic courses through central Madrid.
What Is An ICE Ban?
It may help to define exactly what an internal combustion engine ban even is. The European legislation passed in February mandates considerably stricter automotive emissions rules after 2030 – 55 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than cars’ 1990 levels, for example – before moving to a 100-percent reduction from 2035 onward.
In other words, these are extremely strict emissions standards that equate to an effective ban on internal combustion engines, since those inherently produce carbon emissions, even in hybrid-electric form. And Poliscanova said that as with any emissions standards, automakers not in compliance could face stiff fines and penalties. (Officials from the European Commission did not respond to a detailed list of questions repeatedly sent by InsideEVs.)
“From 2035, all new cars that come on the market cannot emit any CO2,” the European Parliament explained last year. “This is to ensure that by 2050, the transport sector can become carbon-neutral.”
"Because the average lifespan of a car is 15 years, we have to start in 2035 to aim for all cars to be CO2-neutral by 2050.” –European Parliament website.
For those worried the ban would equate to a kind of regressive tax that would result in people being forced to give up their older ICE cars in favour of expensive new EVs, the EU’s ban strictly applies to new cars. It doesn’t mean that ICE-powered cars must be scrapped, although some European cities are also taking steps to limit their presence in city centres.
“If you buy a new car now, you can drive it until the end of its lifespan,” the organisation's website says. “But, because the average lifespan of a car is 15 years, we have to start in 2035 to aim for all cars to be CO2-neutral by 2050.” It also implies the costs of fuel, maintenance, and insurance could increase by that time.
Two other non-EU countries, Norway and the United Kingdom, have already passed similar bans that end new ICE car sales even sooner – 2025 and 2030, respectively. (In fact, given Norway’s already sky-high EV adoption rates, Hyundai has already said it’ll go all-electric there this year.)
Kempower S-Series fast chargers at a Shell station in Norway.
The US has not been without similar actions. Last year, the powerful California Air Resources Board required all new cars and light trucks sold in America’s most populous state be emissions-free by 2035. As they have in the past, numerous other states are expected to follow California’s standards as well.
New York, Massachusetts, and Washington have already said they’ll do so, and together they all represent about a third of the U.S. car market. And recently, the Biden Administration announced a target for EVs to make up 50 percent of new car sales by 2030, although this policy – which is tied to incentives for electric buyers and the growth of the charging network – is not any sort of outright ban.
“Beyond maybe a few cities, we don’t have any actual bans in place yet, so it’s hard to know if they’re working,” Poliscanova said. “We’re all just planning for them in 2030, 2035.” But she reiterated that indicating such bans will happen eventually has moved market forces and changed how car buyers behave.
Automakers like Volkswagen and its brands, Stellantis, Ford, Bentley, and Jaguar have all said they’ll stop selling internal combustion cars in Europe by 2035, if not sooner.
“People see the writing on the wall,” she said.
Most automakers are, in fact, motivated by ICE bans to invest in electric vehicles and taper off fossil fuel-burning engines, multiple industry sources told InsideEVs. They’re just seldom willing to admit it publicly; for that, the typical canned answer is “We’ve always been focused on sustainability and going all-electric by 2035,” or something similar.
But at this point, the writing is on the wall for car companies too. Automakers like Volkswagen and its brands, Stellantis, Ford, Bentley, and Jaguar have all said they’ll stop selling internal combustion cars in Europe by 2035, if not sooner. General Motors has pledged to stop making petrol-powered vehicles by that same year, although it continues to invest in internal combustion. Individual brands – usually luxury brands, since new technology is expensive – like Genesis, Cadillac, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and more have also promised to go all-electric, generally by 2030.
BMW's Munich headquarters. Photo Credit: BMW
(Having said that, many automakers are still hedging their bets in case customer behaviour, market conditions, material supplies or other factors don’t align to create an all-EV future. Though Toyota has been the most vocally sceptical of EV adoption in favour of a mixed powertrain approach to cutting emissions, it’s not alone in looking at alternatives or keeping internal combustion in the proverbial back pocket.)
But the general increases in emissions standards to an eventual goal of zero have pushed automakers in this direction, just as crash rules have done for safer cars, said Loren McDonald, the CEO of EVAdoption, an EV consulting and marketing analysis agency.
“If the right answer to reducing carbon emissions is to replace ICE vehicles with electric vehicles, then bans, from a strategic perspective, are going to motivate automakers to move faster than if they waited for the marketplace,” McDonald said. “Automakers will not do it on their own. They’re just not going to.”
Photo Credit: ACEM
The Fight In Europe
But opposition to Europe’s groundbreaking ban now comes less from automakers and more from certain countries themselves.
Though an agreement was reached over the new standards last fall and the European Parliament approved it in February, the ICE ban faced what was called a “rubber stamp” this month to make it official. That didn’t happen. Instead, Germany raised objections at the last minute, seeking a carve-out for so-called “e-fuels” that could be used in internal combustion engines instead, Bloomberg reported.
The approximately 800,000 people employed in Germany’s massive automotive sector are at risk of losing their jobs if EVs dominate the market, critics argue. EVs need far fewer parts and labour to build, so Europe could very likely see a downsizing of one of its most important industries.
A gas-powered Mercedes-Benz S-Class cruises past the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz
Since then, Germany has formed an alliance with transport ministers from Italy, Poland, Romania, Hungary and other nations with strong automotive footprints to oppose the ICE ban unless e-fuels are exempted.
Poliscanova said that to Transport & Environment, the moves feel more politically motivated than anything else.
“In our view, Italy’s right-wing government is ideologically opposed to the idea of climate regulation of companies,” she said. “However, it’s a bit different in Germany… because of internal politics, German liberals saw a number of defeats in local elections. This became a point to score to show their key base that they can do something.”
“It's very difficult to put in place a proposal that allows the e-fuels without undermining the agreement to go 100 percent zero-emissions and phase out engines,” Poliscanova said.
It’s understandable that the country that gave the world the Porsche 911 would want to save internal combustion. But critics say that e-fuel technology is in its infancy and that these synthetic fuels are very expensive and energy-intensive to produce. They also still generate carbon emissions when burned in an engine, and are only carbon neutral when produced through direct air carbon capture methods. Porsche is invested heavily in their development; the International Council on Clean Transportation calls them a “magic lollipop.”
“It's very difficult to put in place a proposal that allows the fuels without undermining the agreement to go 100 percent zero-emissions and phase out engines,” Poliscanova said. “The two of those are not compatible.”
Complex European politics aside, the fight there could be seen as a preview of more resistance to ICE bans elsewhere. It’s not unreasonable to expect similar battles in the US over its own automotive sector, which employs millions of people and has scores of related sectors depending on it.
Porsche's E-Fuel facility in Punta Arenas, Chile. Photo Credit: Porsche
Furthermore, EVs are slowly becoming part of the culture wars in the US. Earlier this year in Wyoming, a Republican legislator proposed his own ban on electric vehicles in the state by 2035, saying they threaten the employment of people working in oil and gas. While he later admitted the bill was largely symbolic, political fights over jobs, energy, and climate seem likely to continue as the automotive landscape starts to shift.
That may prove true on the other side of the aisle too. Though a Democratic president’s administration is responsible for the Inflation Reduction Act and its resulting US battery industry growth, automotive union officials in America have warned of an electric future that means fewer jobs in that sector. In other words, progressive-leaning politicians could eventually have to make a choice between labour and the environment. All of this serves to show that a ban on internal combustion isn’t as simple as a government vowing to do it, and then the car industry following suit.
Gas-powered Chevrolet Silverados roll off the assembly line. Photo Credit: General Motors
Emissions, Not Technologies, Are The Problem
McDonald said that ICE bans are indeed well-intentioned, but not perfect. Though they’re moving the market toward vastly more new EV sales, those alone will not solve the climate threat posed by cars. It’s less about going after certain technologies and more about targeting the end goal of emissions reduction.
If the end goal is to reduce carbon emissions in the air, ICE bans with hard end dates do nothing to address the scores of petrol and diesel cars likely to still be running by 2035 or whenever other actions are set to take place.
Modern cars are better-built and more reliable than ever before, and many of those new or even just running today will be doing so 10 years from now – to say nothing of the future ICE cars set to be built in the years to come. That’s true even if the EU rules mandate significantly cleaner cars in the immediate years before the ICE ban takes effect.
“That’s something all these countries are missing from their regulations,” McDonald said. “I call it subtraction by subtraction. We have to start getting rid of high-polluting, high-emitting older and older vehicles.”
Kevin F. Brown, an emissions and regulatory consultant who has worked in the automotive space for decades, said such bans’ effectiveness depends on how to manage the transition toward zero-emission vehicles. “That’s where the emperor has no clothes,” he said.
Brown said he’d like to see regulations that mandate the hybridisation of current ICE cars, as those are proven to significantly reduce emissions vs. their non-hybrid counterparts. He also suggested mandating that rental car fleets use only hybrid vehicles, as those end up in used-car lots at scale and this would put more electrified cars in the hands of consumers who can’t pay $65,000 (£54,000) for a high-tech EV.
If the end goal is to reduce carbon emissions in the air, ICE bans with hard end dates do nothing to address the scores of gasoline and diesel cars likely to still be running by 2035 or whenever other actions are set to take place.
His thoughts echo a frequent criticism of policies that end up being effectively pro-EV around the world: are they meant to save the environment, or are they just a gift to the car industry?
Not enough is being done, Brown said, to help lower-income drivers who are commonly found to live in more polluted areas already thanks to emissions from older cars that may be in worse states of repair.
“We've got to find strategies that work for everyone to decarbonise as much as we can,” Brown said. “And that’s what the goal is supposed to be: decarbonisation.”