EU policy on vehicle emissions is biased towards electrification, the trade association FuelsEurope argued on 4 December, as it presented a study suggesting that a gradual switch from diesel to zero-emissions cars would have almost no impact on urban air quality by 2030.
FuelsEurope director John Cooper presented the results of the study, commissioned from the British air quality intelligence provider Aeris, which based its modelling on real driving emissions data provided by the engineering and environmental consultancy Ricardo, which used its own tests of Euro 6 compliant diesel cars.
The Euro standard sets per-kilometre limits on exhaust pipe pollutants other than CO2, which is dealt with on other legislation. Since the Euro 3 standard – the first where NOx was treated separately – was introduced at the turn of the century, the limit for diesel cars has fallen from 500mg/km to 80mg under the current Euro 6, although a ‘conformity factor’ currently allows measured pollution to exceed this level by 110%.
This correction – to allow for presumed inadequacies in fledgeling on-road emissions tests that became compulsory in September in the wake of ‘dieselgate’ scandal – are due to be phased out by 2023 at the latest.
“Our concern is that the focus has all been about increasing tightness in new vehicle standards,” said Fuels Europe director John Cooper. In fact, there have already been calls for a stricter Euro 7 standard, including a recent open letter from the mayors of ten European capitals who also urged a switch to zero-emissions vehicles within two decades.
Cooper was speaking the day before energy ministers were due to discuss the European Commission’s recent ‘clean mobility package’ proposal to reduce CO2 emissions limits for cars and vans by 30% through the decade to 2030.
Although environmentalists and electricity generators were disappointed that the EU executive did not include a binding quota for zero-emissions vehicles, oil refiners are clearly concerned that the general drift of European policy is moving away from the internal combustion engine to support for electric vehicles.
The European Parliament’s current position on reform to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) calls for a target on the use of renewable biofuels in transport – which need to be refined just as crude oil does.
“Proposals from the parliament on RED II require 12% energy content, which could give something like 9 to 10% better GHG intensity of the fuel,” Cooper asserted. This not reflected in the car emissions tests, he pointed out. “So that starts to create basically a bias in the test towards electrification – it does not recognise the improvement in the fuel,” he argued, calling for a system based not just on exhaust pipe emissions but on a life-cycle analysis including the manufacture of batteries.
Central to the refinery lobby’s argument is modelling by Aeris suggesting “there is almost no difference in population exposure” to particulate and NO2 pollution in two scenarios: one in which old cars are replaced by new Euro 6 compliant diesels, and another where they are replaced with zero emissions vehicles.
“It really makes no difference which vehicle somebody chooses,” Cooper said, suggesting emissions from Euro 6 compliant diesel engines were comparable to those of electric vehicles.
Aeris senior analyst Chris Boocock went some way to explaining this conclusion, which appears counter-intuitive given that even Euro 6 compliant cars will still be emitting up to 80mg NOx per km.
By 2030, under both scenarios, the key source of particulate matter (PM) pollution would be tyres on the road and brake pads. For NO2, Aeris focused on the proportion of measuring stations across Europe that breach the EU air quality limit, currently an annual average of 40 microgrammes per cubic metre. This is set to fall from 4% of stations to just 1% by 2030, the firm calculates.
“The reason it’s focusing on the maximums is because it’s the maximum stations that drive the legal compliance,” Boocock said when pressed to specify whether overall average NO2 levels would be different in the diesel and ZEV scenarios.
“Population exposure is really a combination of what is actually the concentration in the air and the number of people adjacent to that point,” he added.
Regardless of the details of the methodology used to arrive at its headline conclusion, the reality on the ground appears already to be overtaking the hypothetical scenarios used in the Aeris report, which does not model the impact of individual action by national and local governments.
The consultancy assumed a ‘business as usual’ scenario, where ageing cars are gradually replaced on the basis of an unspecified average turnover rate. The average age of passenger cars on EU roads was 10.7 in 2015, according to the carmakers’ association ACEA.
Aeris did not model the potentially dramatic impact of policy interventions such as the weekday ban on cars older than 20 years in Barcelona, while Paris confirmed in November a ban on diesel cars from 2024 (and is aiming to phase out petrol cars by 2030).
“That number, 80 milligrammes, is a very, very low level of NOx,” Cooper said, adding that there is a similar standard in place for trucks and buses.
“Continuing to focus on new car standards is a distraction from the key issues that now need to be addressed – we should look at the age and technology level of…buses and trucks operating in these cities,” Cooper said. “But it is not the job of our industry to describe the right policy to do that,” he added.
Shortly after FuelsEurope went public with its projections, the green pressure group Transport & Environment questioned its fundamental assumption of significantly less polluting diesel cars.
“The oil industry’s crystal ball assumes that emissions from new cars on the road will be as low as during tests – but history suggests this is wishful thinking,” said Greg Archer, who leads the group’s work on clean vehicles. “Despite this, the analysis still shows that the toxic air will still be poisoning some urban residents in 2030,” Archer said.
Although the International Energy Agency recently forecast that global oil demand is set to rise for some years yet, Cooper recognised that Europe’s refiners are sensitive to a probable local drop in demand.
“We do see as an outlook that demand for road transport will likely fall in Europe, because of a combination of efficiency, standards and electrification – that is expected.”
He added, however, that while some areas will remain flat, demand for aviation fuels, petrochemicals and marine fuels is expected to grow. “Europe will still need liquid fuels for many years to come, and it makes a lot of sense to manufacture them in Europe,” Cooper said.