The latest report from the European Court of Auditors has revealed that despite significant improvements in engine efficiency, air quality in Europe has not improved. This finding comes after eight years since the Dieselgate scandal, which rocked the automotive industry. Although there has been progress in engine efficiency, a crucial factor is undermining this progress.

There has been a 10% increase in vehicle mass and a 25% increase in engine power between 2011 and 2022. Moreover, the EU’s car fleet has grown from 211 to 253 million between 2010 and 2021, which is further compounding the issue. Shockingly, 75% of new vehicles in 2022 still rely on traditional combustion engines. Private cars are the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions in the transport sector, accounting for a whopping 56% of emissions in 2021, according to the European Environment Agency.

Pietro Russo, a member of the Court of Auditors, asserts that a true reduction in CO2 emissions is impossible as long as internal combustion engines persist. While electric vehicles (EVs) did contribute to a slight drop in emissions in 2020, the slow deployment of EVs faces colossal challenges.

Controversy arises over the phasing out of internal combustion engines, with Germany’s Christian Lindner advocating for synthetic fuels as an alternative. Despite internal disagreements, the EU managed to set a target for 100% emission-free new vehicles by 2035, a date contested by various nations.

Chinese Competition and Social Concerns

The transition to electric engines raises concerns about job displacement, especially in Germany. Simultaneously, the entry of Chinese vehicles, suspected of dumping, further complicates matters. Chinese automaker BYD’s decision to establish a major plant in Hungary has raised eyebrows and concerns.

The Dieselgate scandal in 2015 prompted EU action, assigning the European Commission supervision over manufacturers. However, bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of electronic tools have resulted in delays and accuracy issues in the verification process.

Italy and the Netherlands have failed in their testing obligations, questioning the authenticity of emissions data. The Commission’s failure to review the process in 2023 casts doubt on the credibility of manufacturer tests.

Regulatory Challenges and Hybrid Criticisms

Regulation-wise, the fundamental system remains unchanged. Manufacturers must reduce CO2 emissions, and failure to meet set targets incurs penalties. However, the Court reveals that in the 2010s, automakers exploited testing loopholes to present artificially low emission rates in labs. Although testing procedures have been revised since 2021, material difficulties hinder the testing of already circulating vehicles.

Hybrid engines also face scrutiny, as real-world CO2 emissions often surpass lab results, according to the auditors.

For the Court, the swift adoption of electric vehicles is the only viable path forward. Concerns arise over the inadequate charging infrastructure, with 70% of EU charging stations concentrated in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. The Court recommends making EVs affordable and points to initiatives like Emmanuel Macron’s €100 per month EV leasing program.

As affordable electric vehicles remain scarce, the lifespan of internal combustion engine vehicles is increasing, reflected in the rise of the average car age from 7.4 years in 2014 to 12 years in 2021.

Europe faces a strategic challenge in ensuring a stable supply of raw materials (lithium, cobalt) for EV production amid a global scarcity and increased demand.

In conclusion, Europe’s struggle to improve air quality showcases the complex interplay between regulations, technological advancements, and societal shifts. The road ahead demands a concerted effort to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, address charging infrastructure gaps, and navigate the socio-economic challenges associated with this green revolution.