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We’ve been monitoring the evolution of vehicle legislation in the world closely, advocating for life cycle thinking to be considered for the next generation of regulations. The European Union has been actively pursuing Post 2020 regulations, looking hard at CO2 emissions reduction. On 15 May, the new EU CO2 emission legislation for cars and vans for the post-2021 period entered into force, with the objective of contributing to decarbonisation and modernisation of Europe’s road transport sector in line with the EU’s commitments under the Paris International Climate Agreement. The main instrument to achieve this is a further reduction of tailpipe CO2 emissions from new cars by 37.5% by 2030 compared with the 2021 baseline as well as providing incentives to car manufacturers to sell more low-emission vehicles (<50gCO2/km) in the EU.

The direction of EU policy appears clear: cars need to emit less CO2. Others are questioning the focus on emissions reduction in the use phase of a vehicle and whether this will result in overall emissions savings. In fact, improvements in the driving phase could be cancelled out by increased emissions from the production and later the recycling of the vehicle as manufacturers turn to alternative materials and powertrains that could be more energy intensive to produce.

So, what is the solution?

Perhaps it is already in the recently adopted EU. The legislative text is for all intents and purposes a continuation of the existing CO2 emission legislation with more stringent tailpipe-based targets and verification. Yet it features one notable new element: the idea of reporting on the life cycle emissions of cars.

Article 7 – Monitoring and reporting of average emissions
10. The Commission shall no later than 2023 evaluate the possibility of developing a common Union methodology for the assessment and the consistent data reporting of the full life-cycle CO2 emissions of passenger cars and light commercial vehicles that are placed on the Union market. The Commission shall transmit to the European Parliament and to the Council that evaluation, including, where appropriate, proposals for follow-up measures, such as legislative proposals.

By 2023, the European Commission is tasked with assessing the feasibility of creating an EU methodology for harmonised and consistent reporting of full vehicle life cycle CO2 emissions.

Figure 1: Average historical CO2 emission values and adopted CO2 standards for new passenger cars in the EU. All CO2 values refer to New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) measurements. Source: ICCT

With a reporting framework of this kind, regulators could better anticipate the impact of changes in the vehicle fleet on overall emissions and identify the appropriate policy instruments, thereby being able to future-proof the legislation.

Going forward, the European Commission is expected to undertake a feasibility study to identify possible ways to measure vehicle life cycle emissions in a consistent and harmonised way. The conclusions of this work and any possible recommendations for implementing the methodology into EU law would be part of a report to the European Parliament in time for a review of the Regulation by 2023.

As life cycle assessments are already used by a wide range of stakeholders in the automotive sector, it will also be up to them to contribute to this work and help ensure future debates on the best way to decarbonise the EU road transport sector can draw on their experience.