Clean vehicles directive: Race against time

Ahead of next month’s vote, the clean vehicles directive must not become a victim to those who want to delay action, writes Seb Dance.

Seb Dance | Photo credit: Natalie Hill

By Seb Dance

Former Labour MEP for London, Seb Dance was a Vice-Chair of the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) and Deputy Leader of the UK Labour MEP Delegation

25 Sep 2018

Next month, the European Parliament’s environment committee will vote on proposed changes to the promotion of clean and energy-efficient road transport vehicles directive, otherwise known as the clean vehicles directive (CVD) - a key part of the Commission’s clean mobility package.

Given the intensive and concurrent debate surrounding the proposed new CO2 targets for cars and vans as well as now for trucks, you would be forgiven for having let the CVD slip your attention.

The proposed revision of the CVD, however, can play a crucial role in increasing the market in, and the deployment of, clean and zero-emission vehicles in the EU - provided it is done correctly.


The CVD is a public procurement instrument that incentivises the production of clean vehicles by setting demand-side requirements for public contracting authorities. For manufacturers, the CVD can be seen as the ‘carrot’ to the ‘stick’ of CO2 emission performance standards. The current directive applies to vehicles purchased by contracting authorities and public transport operators. 

If introduced, it will see sustainability requirements into EU public procurement law for the first time. Evidence thus far, however, shows that the current directive is not actually doing what it is supposed to do, i.e. reducing CO2 and air pollutants emitted from publicly procured vehicles.

Instead, the directive’s emphasis on fuel consumption has meant diesel vehicles are favoured, which is proving counter-productive to efforts to reduce toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution. These will need to be phased out if the EU is to meet its mid-century decarbonisation targets.

Around 95 per cent of vehicles on Europe’s roads still use fossil fuels, polluting our air and costing us billions in fuel imports. An ambitious CVD - combined with other key elements of the clean mobility package - can ensure sufficient supply and demand for clean mobility across the EU.

The Commission’s proposal certainly goes in the right direction. It simplifies the current procurement procedure by establishing a common definition of a clean vehicle for light-duty (cars and vans) and heavy-duty vehicles (buses and trucks) and ensuring sufficient demand for these vehicles (but with a focus on buses) by setting minimum procurement targets to be met by 2025 and 2030.

However, as you may have guessed, there isn’t exactly a consensus in Parliament on what should be considered a ‘clean’ vehicle. While some want to adopt a broad definition by aligning with the directive on alternative fuels infrastructure (DAFI), I and others want a stricter and, arguably, cleaner definition.

Adopting the so-called DAFI approach would classify all alternatively-fuelled vehicles as currently defined under the DAFI as clean - that is electric, hydrogen, biofuels, synthetic and paraffinic fuels, natural gas (CNG), and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

As I see it, there are several issues with this approach. First, despite what its proponents might say, it is not technology-neutral; it is technology-prescriptive, as it defines a closed list of technologies as clean, some of which are, or will become, outdated as other technologies emerge or improve.

Second, the definition includes both natural and liquefied petroleum gas. Although these fuels perform better on air pollutants compared to conventional fuels, according to the European Environment Agency, CNG has only marginally better tailpipe CO2 emissions than diesel, while LPG actually emits more. Aligning with the DAFI will also cover biofuels including those produced from food crops, which are most definitely not sustainable.

My view is that we must adopt a stricter and more ambitious vision for clean mobility. By setting forward-looking and technology neutral emission limit values, which can be met by any technology that is able to, we can help develop a premium market for European manufacturers to invest in truly clean technologies. By aligning with the DAFI, this incentive will be lost and the directive’s purpose neutered.

It is important that government and public authorities set a higher standard when it comes to sustainability, but without clear and ambitious objectives, public authorities will resort to the lowest cost option - and why shouldn’t they? Local authorities have seen their budgets squeezed over recent years and have increasingly limited resources for delivering vital transport services.

However, although upfront costs for electric buses, for example, will certainly be higher in the short-term, according to McKinsey, projected declines in battery prices will make the upfront costs of some electric bus models competitive with diesel by 2026. 

If you take into account the huge fuel savings that come with going electric, price parity will come even sooner, as early as 2023. We must not let the present be the enemy of the - very near - future. 

During these discussions, it bears repeating that time is not on our side. The recent European Court of Auditors’ special report on air pollution was a stark reminder that “air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to health in the European Union”. 

Furthermore, the Paris agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C will necessitate complete transport decarbonisation by 2050. 

Accounting for the average service life of vehicles (particularly buses) and the time needed for manufacturers to plan new models, we will need somewhere near to all new vehicles sold in the EU to be zero-emission by 2040.

This file must not become a victim to those who want to delay action and kick the proverbial can down the road.

Time is running out for negotiations to conclude before the end of the current mandate; it is also running out in the fight against air pollution and climate change. The more we delay targets and water down definitions, the more we risk abdicating our role in this fight.


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