The ban on combustion engines passed in the EU Parliament is causing a dispute in the traffic light coalition: With the argument of “technology openness”, the FDP insists on leaving combustion engines on the market. But what the FDP demands is unrealistic. She’s partly to blame for that.

Granted, it sounds logical. Transport Minister Volker Wissing and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (both FDP) are calling for “technology openness” after the EU Parliament’s decision to ban the sale of new cars with combustion engines from 2035. The decision contradicts “the spirit of the coalition agreement,” said Lindner on Thursday. “We want a future option for climate-friendly liquid fuels.” With a de facto ban on synthetic fuels, so-called e-fuels, in cars, “Germany’s approval is inconceivable,” threatened Lindner. The federal government must now, and there’s that nice word again, “push for openness to technology”.

In the debate about e-mobility and the turnaround in transport, there is hardly a term that is as omnipresent as “technology openness”. Instead of setting a rigid electric car path into the future in a planned economy, the EU should rather let the market decide, so the argument goes. If electric mobility is so great, then it will prevail over combustion engines, hydrogen or plug-in hybrids. So what is the EU afraid of?

The problem is that a real, technology-open race for the best drive type of the future also requires a free market in which the conditions are fair for everyone. Economists speak of a “level playing field”. In other words, the state must stay out of it. However, this is wishful thinking, especially in German mobility policy, where the climate crisis, economic lobbying and culture wars meet.

The result can currently be admired every day – and costs taxpayers billions. The subsidies of up to 9,000 euros for the purchase of an electric car, which also apply to plug-in hybrids, distort the market in favor of electromobility. The current tank discount, in turn, tries to keep the price of petrol and diesel artificially low – and thus distorts the market in favor of combustion engines. Not to mention the billions in tax subsidies for diesel fuel.

The “level playing field” in Germany is littered with molehills. Last but not least, the FDP has its share: It was she who pushed through the debt-financed tank discount, which, according to initial findings, primarily favors mineral oil companies and higher earners.

During the federal election campaign, the liberals had called for the fuel price to be regulated in terms of climate policy using the completely market-based instrument of European emissions trading, even if it meant skyrocketing. But when it entered government, the FDP suddenly lost its confidence in the market.

This is what makes e-fuels so risky. Synthetic fuels are attractive to politicians: every member of parliament or minister dreams of a technology that will allow everything to remain as it has been up to now. This creates incentives to make the playing field a little bit uneven. What would happen, for example, if e-fuels turned out to be priced uncompetitively in 2035 – could the tank discount FDP then resist an e-fuel discount?

“Openness to technology” also means that politicians can artificially keep clearly inferior technologies alive, whether for ideological or lobbying reasons. Anyone who follows the political debates surrounding the turnaround in traffic, where electric cars are often considered emission-free or dirtier than diesel cars (both wrong), or where e-fuels are already available almost unlimitedly for 80 cents per liter, knows: specialist knowledge plays a role only play a limited role in many decisions.

And at least for the time being, e-fuels still have major problems to be solved in terms of production, logistics and profitability compared to electromobility. The automotive industry, i.e. the market, has therefore already made its decision for the most part: corporations such as VW, Opel, Fiat, Daimler and Hyundai have already independently decided to phase out the combustion engine. Politicians should listen to the market. And prefer to work flat out to ensure that the electric revolution is a success.

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