Trickle-down Climate Action? Using Consumer Policy to Clean Up the Automotive Sector 

By Monique Goyens, Director General at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC)

This article was originally published in Issue II of the Green Mobility Magazine.

At the beginning of its current mandate, the European Commission adopted the Green Deal and passed a Climate Law to align its policies with the Paris Agreement. It then presented Fit for 55, a legislative package aimed at tackling climate change by shifting energy-intensive sectors towards a low-carbon future. The Fit for 55 proposals are now being turned into applicable EU law. 

As this happens, BEUC, a network of 46 European consumer groups in Brussels, is advocating to ensure these laws trickle down to reality by providing people with attractive and affordable mobility options. We argue that consumer policy plays a major role in turning the EU’s climate ambitions into reality.

Climate action as an opportunity for all

A fair transition can and should benefit people’s welfare. Despite the profound, swift and radical changes it brings, we see climate action as an opportunity for all [1]. Housing, mobility, food, consumer goods: all these sectors need to drastically lower their greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, if done right, climate policies can lead to financial savings, longer-lasting products, a healthier and safer environment, and a more sustainable economy.

This transition certainly will not ‘just’ happen on its own, and financial or social benefits from such radical change will not simply trickle down to individual consumers. So how can the ecological transition provide clear benefits to our daily lives?

Make the sustainable choice the easy choice

Climate policies cannot work without the necessary tools to accompany consumers in changing their behaviour. A successful ecological transition means we need to go beyond the adoption of ambitious legislative goals. We must talk about acceptance, endorsement, and giving the right tools to consumers to make the switch. The sustainable choice must be the easy choice.

Mobility is a laboratory for translating this message into concrete political decisions. To push for real change in the Green Deal era, BEUC decided to look at how to help drivers make a change. And we did so by looking at cost and convenience.

A reality check on the cost of electric driving

In a large study around the lifetime ownership costs of electric vehicles [2] (EV), we found these are already today the best financial option for many consumers and will be for all in the years to come. More importantly, a second-hand EV brings the greatest benefits for those who rely on a car for their daily mobility needs as they are greatly affected by the running costs of their vehicle.

The conclusion is straightforward: accelerating the deployment of EVs will bring environmental, economic, health and social benefits. A quadruple win. To make this quadruple win a reality, we took our message to EU policymakers urging them to legislate and nudge car makers to bring more EVs to market.

After a bit more than a year of negotiations, the European Parliament and the Council recently struck the first deal turning Fit for 55 into law by setting in stone the phase-out of the sales of combustion engine cars in the EU. This is part of legislation that will progressively lower the CO2 emissions from cars. As of 2035, car makers will only be allowed to sell cars with zero tailpipe emissions – a 100% reduction compared to 2021. Electric cars will therefore become more present in showrooms in the years to come.

After a slow start, this means the EU is now going full speed on the electrification of cars. This is no small achievement. Mobility represents a large area of expenditure for consumers, and low ambition on the road to electrification would mean drivers remain stuck in a fossil-fuelled mobility system that is bad for their health, the environment, and their wallet. 

Ambitious climate goals are not enough to make the sustainable option – electric cars, in this case – the easy one. Other consumer policy levers are needed beyond the price signal. 

Making electric cars convenient and all cars cleaner

A wave of other Green Deal initiatives is accompanying the decision to reduce CO2 emissions from cars. And BEUC is defending the ‘make the sustainable choice, the easy choice’ motto in each of them.

Firstly, on-the-go charging must be easy for consumers across Europe. Evidence from BEUC and its members Arbeiterkammer, Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband, and Which? shows that electric car drivers face issues such as malfunctioning charging points, incomparable tariffs, and inconvenient payment options. As the EU reforms its Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation [3], we are advocating for easy payment by debit or credit card, transparent tariffs in kilowatt-hours, and properly maintained charging stations.

Secondly, our homes must be ready for the influx of electric cars. The relevant law here, the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive [4], is also being reviewed. Consumer organisations would like to see it lead to, for instance, a lower administrative burden for consumers willing to install a charge point in their multi-dwelling building. New or renovated buildings and commercial areas will have to be equipped with enough charge points.

At the time of writing this article, 2035 is still more than a decade away. While electric cars are increasingly popular, petrol and diesel cars will be produced and sold well into the 2030s and driven into the 2040s. This means we also need to ensure those cars emit less air pollutants. The new EURO7 generation of pollutant limits, a technical regulation recently proposed [5] by the European Commission, should ensure that new internal combustion engine cars hitting the road emit as little as possible. By including brake emissions, this legislation should also capture air pollutants from EVs. 

Finally, to help people choose the cleanest cars they must have clear, comparable, and credible information about the model they plan to buy. We therefore call on the EU to update its outdated Car Labelling Directive [6] of which the current version is unhelpful, misleading, and not adapted to today’s market where people browse online for cars. BEUC would like to see a car label, online and offline, that looks similar to the A to G scale energy label we see when buying a household appliance. Such a label should also capture the rise of electric cars by mentioning range and average charging time. 

Supporting consumers in difficult times

At the same moment as the world needs to tackle climate change, consumers are facing an energy crisis and are struggling in their everyday lives. One thing appears clearer: we need to keep up the ambition.

The first step is the hardest when it comes to walking down the transition avenue. While electric cars will benefit Europeans in the long-term, they will remain out of reach for most people in the next few years as we wait for the growth of a second-hand market. Meanwhile, all types of cars are becoming more expensive. Our Spanish member OCU found that over the last five years, the price of some cars – usually the cheapest ones – has gone up by more than 30%. At the same time, we also see a global market trend where car makers sell fewer but more premium models.

BEUC therefore argues there is a need for financial mechanisms that will help people with lower or middle incomes deal with an ‘investment gap’ in the short-term. By rerouting public and private money towards global climate objectives, these mechanisms should help households and make green choices more economically attractive. Such mechanisms can take the form of subsidised loans, revolving funds, or leasing agreements.

Send the right price signals and promote sustainable alternatives

This is a lot of money, you might say. But the cost of inaction on climate change is also huge, and public authorities have not hesitated to heavily subsidise fossil fuels during the first months of the crisis. For instance, the French government alone spent more than €7 billion to reduce the price of petrol at the pump between September and December 2022.

Making the sustainable choice the cheapest one is the most effective way to have consumers endorse the ecological transition. And this is not only the case for the automotive sector. Not everyone has a car, wants a car, or can afford one. Alternative transport modes, such as trains, should become more convenient. That is why BEUC intends to advocate over the next few years to give rail travellers a better booking and journey experience, including easier ticketing and improved passenger rights. 

There is still very much a road, or railway, ahead. Focusing on consumer affordability, availability, and convenience can help EU climate policies trickle down into concrete benefits for our daily lives. That is also a clear message to decision-makers ahead of the 2024 European Parliament elections. While the energy crisis today is complicated, decision-makers must build on the Green Deal decisions taken over the last four years. A ‘Green Deal 2.0’, so to speak, should go beyond the decisions already taken in the automotive sector and focus on making alternatives to car use available and affordable. That way, we can clean up Europe’s mobility sector to all our benefit. 

By Monique Goyens, Director General at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC)

This article was originally published in Issue II of the Green Mobility Magazine.


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