A new, clean era begins for trucks

The result came as no surprise to anyone who has followed the issue of vehicle emissions, yet it was still a dramatic moment in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on November 14 when MEPs voted by 373 to 285 to set tougher, new targets for truck emissions of at least 35% by 2030.

The vote was heralded by its supporters as the dawn of a new era in cleaner, greener trucking. Even with its 12-year window to comply, it still represents an enormous challenge for heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers. But it raises the question of whether the industry can transform itself so completely.

The measures are, of course, part of the EU efforts to battle global warming. Trucks account for a quarter of all road transport carbon dioxide emissions in the EU while making up just 5% of vehicles on the road, so they add disproportionately to climate change. But they also move 14 billion tonnes of goods per year and deliver 90% of the total value of goods in Europe.

The measures include an interim target of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions from trucks by 2025 (compared to 2019 levels). Both the targets voted by MEPs are actually more ambitious than those proposed by the European Commission last May, which were for 30% by 2030 and 15%.

As far as the Commission was concerned, these targets were a logical and obvious response to climate change. “We need to act to tackle the growing CO2emissions from heavy-duty vehicles,” EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete told the MEPs.

For the author of the Parliament law, Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout, the measures were all the more urgent given last month’s report by the IPCC, the UN’s climate science body, on the effects of global warming. “After the IPCC report, it’s clear that policy-makers cannot remain asleep at the wheel when it comes to climate action,” he said.

However, MEPs also acknowledged the social upheaval of switching from combustion engines to batteries, and they urged the EU to assist workers in the sector learning new skills and reallocating them – while also including a ‘malus’ to penalise manufacturers who do not sell a mandatory quota of zero- and low-emissions trucks.

The Transport & Environment (T&E) lobby group described the targets, together with the enforceable zero-emission truck sales target, as very positive steps “that will cut climate emissions, make air in cities cleaner and slash fuel bills for businesses.” T&E calculated that the 2025 target will deliver an additional €14,000 in fuel savings per new truck in its first five years compared to the Commission’s proposed 15% reduction.

Industry, however, warns that its concerns are being ignored. It has warned that these targets will hurt their global competitiveness, even putting some companies at risk. The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) sought targets of just 7% by 2025 and 16% by 2030. ACEA Secretary-General Erik Jonnaert described the “excessively aggressive” cuts as a potential “social catastrophe” for the sector. “MEPs seem to be blatantly ignoring the fact that the potential for electrifying the truck fleet is far lower than for cars, due to issues such as extremely high upfront costs, range limitations, insufficient infrastructure – particularly along motorways – as well as reluctant customers,” he said.

Attention now turns to the EU’s 28 governments, who must still decide on their version of the final law. Until recently, the industry could count on Germany and other countries with big car and truckmaking operations to water down drastic measures. And the Council of Minister’s version will likely be less strict than the Parliament’s.

But not by much: the tone has changed, and most governments now take a firmer line on emissions than before. The vote by MEPs is a forerunner of a major change for the truck industry.