Back to stories overview

Paving the way for the transition to zero emission vehicles in Europe


The first few months of 2023 have been marked by several milestones with the potential to change the future of Europe’s transport sector – from new and more ambitious CO2 standards for both light and heavy vehicles to the announcement of an alternative fuels infrastructure regulation and a 100% zero-tailpipe emissions target for 2035. With these developments, efforts to clear the air on Europe’s roads are set to take a turn for the better in decades to come.

New CO2 standards for Europe’s heavy-duty vehicles

Trucks currently play a vital part in the European economy, with more than 75% of all land freight across the continent being transported with these vehicles. However, road transport is also a major contributor to climate change. Today, large lorries only account for 73% of all the emissions of heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs), which overall have grown by 25% since 1990, accounting for over a quarter of road transport emissions.

Therefore, stronger CO2 emission standards for HDVs, which comprise both freight vehicles like trucks and transport vehicles such as buses and coaches, are a key instrument of the EU’s climate toolkit to drive down the sector’s emissions and improve air quality in urban areas.

The European Commission recently proposed a revision of the CO2 standards for heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) from 2030 onwards, which extends the scope of the initial regulation. The proposal raised the ambition levels by putting forward:

  • a new CO2 emission reduction target of 90% by 2040 for trucks (including raising the target for 2030 from 30% currently to 45%, and adding a new 2035 interim target of 65% emission reduction);
  • and a 100% zero-emission target by 2030 for urban buses.

Setting the 2035 clean car target

Following the 2022 landmark decision of a 100% phase-out of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2035, Europe’s light-duty vehicles have now witnessed another turning point.

In March 2023, the European Council approved the Light Duty Vehicle CO2 standards, setting stricter emission performance standards for new cars and vans: from 2035, new cars that run on petrol or diesel will no longer be allowed to be sold in the EU, with an exception for vehicles running 100% on e-fuels.

A critical part of the EU’s Fit for 55 package, the 2035 combustion engine ban represents by far the most ambitious CO2 regulation for cars and vans worldwide. In addition to setting the 2035 clean car target, the legislation also raised the interim 2030 emissions reduction target, forcing automakers to ramp up the sale of electric vehicles over the coming few years.

This was also accompanied by another central pillar in the transition to Zero Emission Vehicles: the revision of the deployment of an Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR). This regulation sets both the pace and the minimum standards for a massive deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure across Europe.

The beginning of the end of fossil fuel trucks in Europe – a network effort

sven brandsma ynswpipx3pe unsplashMonths of dedication and effort have preceded the outcome of these proposals. The mobilization of ECF grantees and wider networks – ranging from industry and NGO joint letters to platforms and alliances – have collectively pushed the decarbonisation of road freight transport to the forefront of the EU agenda and demonstrated that the electrification of road freight transport is an achievable target.

As such, the extended scope in the proposal, the 2030 phase-out for buses, the increased and new interim CO2 emission reduction targets of 45% by 2030 and 65% by 2035, and the close phase-out target for 2040 for trucks are the result of active engagement and provision of technical advice from ECF partners across Europe.

Both transport NGOs and industry groups aimed for a 100% emission reduction target equivalent to a phase-out by 2040, considering this a necessary milestone to achieve the 90% emission reduction of the road transport sector. Having not achieved this target, the network is already looking at opportunities in the European Parliament and the Council of the EU to call for a more ambitious emission reduction trajectory in line with the bloc’s net-zero climate goals.

The challenges ahead

The fact that road transport remains one of the largest sources of air pollution and causes of GHG emissions in Europe makes the rapid transition of Europe’s cars and trucks to zero-emission more urgent than ever.

With the stricter CO2 emission standards for cars and vans, the EU aims to ensure that the automotive sector contributes to the EU’s climate goals, while also stimulating innovation. The long-awaited proposal on heavy-duty vehicles, too, represents a vital piece of climate work. Although it failed to commit to a full phase-out of trucks with internal combustion engines, it still sends a strong signal to the market, manufacturers, and the logistics industry about the bloc’s intention to move to zero-emission HDVs and the need for all sectors involved to get on board. It is also fundamental legislation for cities to improve the air quality of citizens. This is even more important considering that the current European heavy-duty vehicles fleet runs almost entirely on fossil fuels which are predominantly imported, making it a contributor to the EU’s energy dependency. With that in mind, any climate goal allocated to road freight transport will curb the release of harmful emissions for the planet and our health and improve the EU’s energy security.

It is vital that now, as the proposed revision of the CO2 standards for HDVs is handed over to the European Parliament and the European Council, momentum is not lost in this fight to shift towards electric engines and secure a clear pathway to zero emission transport across Europe.