When it comes to greening its massive car industry, Germany can't quite make up its mind: Should it go all in for electric vehicles or place a side bet on synthetic fuels?
The new government's Transport Minister, Volker Wissing, is vacillating on the question — and angering the country's powerful car lobby in the process.
In its coalition agreement, Germany's new government — which unites the Social Democrats, the Greens and Wissing's liberal Free Democrats — committed to having 15m electric cars on the road by 2030 and phasing out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles before an EU ban, slated for 2035, comes into force.
But it also pledged to continue to allow the sale of combustion engine vehicles that run on synthetic fuels — a clause inserted by Wissing's liberal party.
Just weeks into the job, Wissing now appears to have gone cool on the prospect of sourcing large enough quantities of the so-called e-fuels, which are generated using renewable energy, to replace gasoline and diesel in millions of combustion engines already on the road across Germany.
"We should take advantage of the opportunities we already have today," Wissing said on 17 January at a conference organised by business daily Handelsblatt, referring to available technology for electric vehicles.
“Of course, e-fuels are also an important contribution,” he said, but noted that it would make sense, given limited stocks, to reserve their use for airplanes and trucks where batteries aren't as easily deployed.
“If you have a lot of it to spare, I'm grateful for every liter that replaces a fossil fuel," he added. But he cautioned that "it's not realistic to expect a solution to fall from the sky" when it comes to massively scaling up the fuels.
The comments came as a shock to Germany's car lobby, which has long backed e-fuels as a way to slash emissions from the millions of fossil fuel cars that will remain in use even after sales of new polluting cars are no longer allowed. Betting on e-fuels would also help keep alive the sprawling supply chain of companies across Germany that make the parts for traditional combustion engines, the industry argues.
"Without e-fuels, the vehicles that are already in operation cannot make any contribution to climate protection," said Hildegard Müller, the German auto industry's Chief Lobbyist.
She added it's crucial that the new government back the technology, as scaling up the production of e-fuels will require significant investment and research. "For this, Berlin must now set the course in Brussels," she said.
Outside of industry, e-fuels have few cheerleaders.
In the European Parliament, French Liberal Lawmaker Dominique Riquet is one of only a few voices advocating for e-fuels, outlining their potential in his draft opinion for the industry committee on the European Commission's proposed car and van CO2 standards legislation. The main Rapporteur, his party colleague from the Netherlands Jan Huitema, focuses instead on quickening the pace of the shift to batteries.
In the Council, much of the debate on the file is focused on whether to set interim targets for carmakers to slash fleet emissions and whether to allow the continued sale of plug-in hybrids that use both engines and batteries.
Faced with problematic coalition commitments, German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke, a Green, stopped short of unveiling her government's position on the reform at a Council meeting late in 2021. “From an economic perspective, e-fuels for passenger cars are an insurmountable task,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a Professor at the Center for Automotive Research in Duisburg. "Nobody really takes e-fuels for cars seriously."