Brand new city buses in the EU must be powered by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells by 2030, under new rules unveiled by the European Commission (EC) yesterday.

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The regulations will see bus fleet operators tasked with picking from three zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) technologies: battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell electric or hydrogen internal combustion.

A slew of new emissions targets will also see the EU regulate to gradually phase in these ZEV technologies across other heavy-duty vehicle sectors, including long-distance buses and heavy-duty trucking.

The targets are aiming for a 45% sector-wide reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 from new vehicles sold in the sector (compared to 2019 emissions), rising to 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2040.

The remaining 10% of 2040’s carbon emissions will be reserved for segments that cannot decarbonise easily, for example trucks working in steep mountain conditions, or for vehicles in forestry, agriculture or mining.

The EC did not specify the use of green hydrogen made from renewable energy to achieve the targets, but said in its impact assessment that it expected the recently-strengthened European carbon emissions trading system (ETS) to incentivise full “well-to-wheel” decarbonisation of heavy-duty trucking.

But the EC appeared to rule out the use of vehicles running “low carbon fuels” such as biofuels or synthetic fuels to achieve the targets, saying that the limited resources to make them should be reserved for hard to abate transport sectors such as aviation and shipping.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are by far the most efficient and therefore the cheapest technology to run compared to both hydrogen fuel-cell and hydrogen engine-powered trucks.

Each mile travelled in a hydrogen FCEV will require roughly twice as much energy as a battery-powered equivalent.

But although BEVs benefit from more mature refuelling network than hydrogen-powered trucking, some in the trucking sector have expressed anxiety about the amount of time needed to recharge the vehicle compared to hydrogen or diesel — time during which the vehicle needs to be on the road earning money.

And hydrogen combustion engines offer the cheapest upfront cost of any ZEV option, costing around 50% more than a diesel equivalent, compared to 100% for a hydrogen FCEV truck and 120% for a BEV.

As a result, some fleet operators are keen to smooth out their capital investment in ZEV technology by opting for a hydrogen engine in the first instance, before upgrading to a more expensive hydrogen FCEV later on.

Separately the European Parliament has also green-lighted legislation that will outlaw new fossil-fuelled powered passenger cars and light commercial vehicles by 2035.

Under the new law, the segment must reduce emissions from new vehicles by 100% by 2035 (compared to 2021), with intermediate 2030 targets of 55% for cars and 50% for vans.

“To reach our climate and zero pollution goals all parts of the transport sector have to actively contribute,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU executive vice president responsible for the bloc’s Green Deal. “In 2050, nearly all of the vehicles on our roads have to be zero-emission. Our Climate Law requires it, our cities demand it, and our manufacturers are gearing up for it.”