Two new reports by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highlight the failure to address “upmarket drift” in the EU and US car industry and its impact on carbon emissions.

The EU’s ‘Fit for 55‘ revision of CO2 standards for cars – which will effectively phase out the internal combustion engine from 2035 – will actually reinforce the trend towards heavier and more powerful vehicles and reduce the environmental benefits of electrification, according to the ETUI report. It also warns that the regulation will make battery electric vehicles (BEVs) less affordable, particularly in southern, central and eastern Europe.

Between 2001 and 2015, the average European car gained 10% in mass and 26% in engine power, equivalent to a 21% increase in CO2 emissions, finds the ETUI. During this period, the automotive industry was supposed to cut emissions by 20%, from 169g of CO2 per kilometre (CO2/km) to 135g CO2/km. The report states that the extra 21% in emissions resulting from upmarket drift meant the industry actually had to cut emissions by 41%.

The researchers warn that competition from China could threaten the EU car industry if it moves away from the lighter, cheaper, entry-level market. Chinese mini-cars are already cheaper to buy than their petrol equivalents and are the best-selling BEVs in China – without subsidies.

To avoid this, the researchers recommend a phase-out of weight-based CO2 standards and the introduction of energy efficiency as a key measure to evaluate the contribution of EVs to climate action. The ETUI also calls for a review of the EU’s minimum vehicle mass standards and the introduction of a tax on vehicle weight.

In the US, the EPA’s 2022 Automotive Trends Report, released on 12 December, finds that 2021 model year light-duty vehicles had an average fuel use of 25.4 miles per gallon, matching 2020 vehicles. Federal standards finalised in 2012 had targeted a 7.2% fleetwide improvement for 2021 models over the previous year, but the standards were weakened by the Trump administration’s SAFE rule, which targeted just 1.5% progress for 2021 vehicles – a target that manufacturers did not meet, according to the EPA report.

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“The bottom line is fleetwide fuel economy didn’t improve,” said the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in a statement. “[Carmakers are] cancelling out all the efficiency progress as they sell more large vehicles .” The statement added that nearly all US carmakers used emissions credits from earlier years in the programme to undershoot this year’s fuel use target. The nonprofit called on the EPA to “tackle the relentless upsizing of vehicles and rampant use of credits in its next standards”.