The European Commission has proposed new standards for transport fuels, designed to reduce the contribution of fuels to climate change. At the same time, following the intervention of the German automotive industry during the last week, it has further postponed an announcement on proposed binding targets for CO2 emissions from vehicles.

Fuel suppliers will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production, transport and use of their fuels by 10% between 2011 and 2020. According to the European Commission, this will cut emissions by 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020 – equivalent to the total combined emissions of Spain and Sweden today. A new petrol blend will be established allowing higher content of the biofuel ethanol, and sulphur levels in diesel and gasoil will be cut to reduce emissions of dangerous dust particles.

The standards will be brought about by a change to the 1998 fuel quality directive. The revised directive will introduce an obligation for fuel suppliers to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that their fuels cause over their life-cycle  – that is when they are refined, transported and used. From 2011, suppliers will have to reduce emissions per unit of energy by 1% a year from 2010 levels. This will result in a 10% cut by 2020.

According to the Commission, this obligation will promote the further development of low-carbon fuels and other measures to reduce emissions from the fuel production chain.

To enable a higher volume of biofuels to be used in petrol, a separate petrol blend will be established with a higher permitted content of oxygen-containing additives (so-called oxygenates), including up to 10% ethanol. The different petrol blends will be clearly marked to avoid fuelling vehicles with incompatible fuel. To compensate for an increase in emissions of polluting vapours that will result from greater use of ethanol, the Commission will put forward a proposal for the mandatory introduction of vapour recovery equipment at filling stations later this year. These vapours, known as volatile organic compounds, contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone pollution, which can cause premature death in people with breathing difficulties or heart problems.

From 1 January 2009 all diesel fuel marketed will have to have an ultra-low sulphur content (no more than 10 parts per million). This will cut pollutant emissions, primarily of dust particles (‘particulate matter’), the air pollutant most dangerous for human health. This sulphur reduction will in particular facilitate the introduction of new pollution-control equipment such as particle filters on diesel vehicles. From the same date, the maximum permitted content of another dangerous substance in diesel, poly aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), will be reduced by one-third. This may reduce emissions not only of PAHs, some of which may cause cancer, but also of particulate matter.

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Reacting to the proposed new fuel standards Jos Dings director of leading environmental group Transport & Environment (T&E) said: “Until now Europe’s approach to alternatives like biofuels has been to promote them regardless of whether or not they are good or bad for the environment.  If it’s designed right this commitment to reducing carbon emissions will ensure that only the cleanest biofuels are promoted and the production process of fossil fuels is cleaned up.  That is a very good approach and we welcome it.” 

The new fuel standards were announced just three weeks after a similar plan was put forward by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California.

The fuel announcement was set to be published in parallel with a communication on future legally-binding targets for car fuel efficiency.  But those plans have been postponed for a third time following complaints from the German car industry, and intervention by European Enterprise Commissioner Guenter Verheugen.

“What we are seeing is mindless scaremongering from the German car industry” said Dings. “They are saying that makers of larger cars will have to close and thousands of jobs will be lost – it’s absurd. The EU approach has always been that emissions should be cut across the whole fleet in order to reach an average target. The problem has been that most carmakers haven’t cut emissions fast enough, and that’s why regulation is now urgently needed. It is simply wrong that the Commission is preparing to water down an absolutely key element of Europe’s climate policy on the basis of the misleading claims of one industry in one country.”