A Dead Weight: Will a New EU Law Embrace Diesel Trucks over Zero-Emission Ones?

This article was written by Bernardo Galantini, Freight Officer at Transport & Environment.

Transportation of goods is essential to our lives. With this necessity, however, today comes an environmental and health toll. Trucks are responsible for nearly 30% of CO2 emissions from road transport, half of its NOx emissions, and one-third of fine particulate matter pollution while comprising a mere 2% of vehicles on European roads.

The recently unveiled revision of the Weights and Dimensions (W&D) Directive in July 2023 has the potential to be a game-changer in promoting zero-emission trucks for long-haul operations. However, if not amended, it risks cementing the dominance of diesel engines.

Missing a real incentive for zero-emission trucks

Combustion-engine powered trucks continued to dominate new sales in the first half of 2023, accounting for over 98% of new registrations. Although the share of zero-emission trucks is growing, the Weights and Dimensions Directive is key to increasing their attractiveness, including for long-haul transport.

Zero-emission (ZE) trucks are well-suited for long-haul operations. In the next few years, they would only need some additional weight to accommodate battery packs, until ongoing innovations make them lighter. The European Commission proposes a weight allowance of 4 tonnes when ZE trucks travel between EU countries.

Today, the general cross-border weight limit for trucks is set at 40t. Zero-emission trucks, which are already allowed to weigh 2 tonnes extra, will be permitted to reach, at a maximum, 44 tonnes. In theory, this additional weight allocation would incentivise the uptake of ZE trucks. However, the Commission, surprisingly, will allow diesel trucks to reach 44 tonnes in major use cases until 2035.

Why would a haulier opt for an electric truck, where the increased weight tolerance is offset by the weight of batteries, when diesel trucks enjoy an additional 4 tonnes of cargo capacity? If left unamended, operators will naturally be attracted by dirtier diesel trucks, which can carry more.

But this would not be the only missed incentive for electric trucks. The proposed rules facilitate the circulation of gigaliners (typically, 25.25m vehicles weighing 60 tonnes) between countries that permit their use domestically. However, there’s a surprising omission: there are no provisions mandating their electrification.

If no action is taken, diesel-powered gigaliners will be allowed to rule Europe’s core roads, incentivising an increase, rather than a decrease, in fossil fuel and fuel-infrastructure investments. 

Another critical point of contention in the proposed regulations is the 1-tonne increase to the driving axle weight of zero-emission trucks, a move that may inadvertently slow down the shift to lighter and more efficient e-truck designs. While a temporary (but limited) increase is essential to accommodate battery packs, the full tonne proposed excessively increases road wear. A time-limited increase to 12 tonnes (only 0,5t extra with respect to the current limit), instead, would both incentivise zero-emission trucks and substantially limit the impact on European roads.

Driving the change: which direction for EU heavy-duty transport?

Road transport emissions have alarmingly risen by approximately 21% since 1990.

The expected surge in truck activity by 40% by 2050 compared to 2019 makes the decarbonisation of the EU truck fleet even more urgent. This Directive, if amended to allow for a weight difference of 4 tonnes between zero-emission and combustion trucks, will reshape freight transport in line with the EU’s climate goals. Without a supportive environment, the sales of zero-emission trucks during the late 2020s may remain insufficient, jeopardizing the achievement of the CO2 reduction targets of the EU.

All of this is now in the hands of the European Parliament and the Council of the EU.

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On the one hand, some Member States in the Council are hesitant to grant any further weight allowance to zero-emission vehicles. The increase in the driving axle weight, in particular, will be hotly debated between EU institutions. It is important to be clear: without any increase, zero-emission trucks will not benefit from the proposed 4 tonnes for the whole vehicle.

On the other hand, in Parliament, lawmakers have a significant opportunity before them: aligning the file with the European Green Deal by giving a strong, non-monetary signal for market operators to shift to zero-emission vehicles. The Parliament aims to bring the file to a plenary vote in March 2024. However, there is a tangible risk of negotiations between the Commission, Council and Parliament starting after EU elections in June 2024. Considering the proposed 2-year period for rule transposition, the effective implementation risks stretching to 2027. It’s way too late to still give operators an incentive to choose diesel trucks.

This article was written by Bernardo Galantini, Freight Officer at Transport & Environment.