05 May 2021

Setting ‘green’ rules for a booming market – Pros and cons of the EU Battery Regulation proposal

By Rita Tedesco

Batteries are crucial both for the energy transition and clean transport. However, clear rules need to be set right at the outset of this revolution, so that batteries do not damage our environment. In Europe, policymakers and members of the standardisation community are deciding on the rules that should mitigate the impact of these products. The latest legislative proposal put on the table by the European Commission might be hard to follow – but not with our EU Battery Regulation cheat sheet here below.

Batteries are increasingly present in our daily lives – from wireless devices to energy storage to electric vehicles (EVs) and bikes. However, even though batteries are poised to accelerate the uptake of renewable energies and decarbonise the transport sector, they also come at a cost for the environment.

Last December, the European Commission published its proposal for a new Battery Regulation, aiming to make the battery boom as positive as possible for our planet. A very much needed update, as current rules do not even include a definition of what ‘electric vehicles’ are.

If left unregulated, batteries pose significant risks to our planet. They have an impact on biodiversity, water and air quality, from mining and extraction of raw materials, as well as from their disposal and recycling, not to mention their carbon footprint if fossil fuels are used in their manufacturing. 

The Commission’s proposal addresses several crucial elements seeking to pave the way for sustainable batteries, covering the whole value chain, from extraction to reuse and recycling, and including requirements on performance and durability, carbon footprint and recycled content.

It is an important improvement compared to the status-quo, but some aspects remain unresolved. This is the best and the worst of the Commission’s proposal:

The pros

New definitions for 21st century batteries. The proposed regulation sets new definitions and categories. Together with portable, automotive and industrial, the Commission has established a new dedicated category for batteries used in EVs. Besides, batteries for ‘light means of transport’ (such as electric bikes) are now a subgroup of portable batteries lighter than 5 kg.

Carbon footprint declaration and thresholds. The Commission plans to introduce obligations on carbon footprint, including a mandatory declaration and performance thresholds. These are key to ensure the sustainability of batteries since most of the emissions occur in the manufacturing phase.

Rules to enable a market for second life batteries. The Commission’s proposal introduces new requirements clarifying the criteria for waste batteries to be repurposed or remanufactured – in other words, to stop being treated as waste.

These requirements aim to help create a market for second life batteries, EV or industrial, to be used as energy storage. However, to make sure this works in practice, technical standards will need to accompany these measures and specify testing methods and metrics.

A battery passport. The Commission foresees a battery passport, both for electric vehicles and industrial energy storage batteries. Such a passport should clarify the responsibilities of producers across the value chain, as they would be obliged to comply with minimum information requirements on their carbon footprint. Passports would come along with maximum emission requirements for batteries, too.

 

The cons

Disposable batteries are still allowed for small devices. Pushed by industry claims on the necessity for disposable batteries in the so-called ‘low-drain’ applications (e.g. remote controls, wall clocks), the European Commission scrapped their initial plan to phase out non-rechargeable, single-use batteries, and opted for minimum performance requirements instead. This approach could delay the actual phase-out of single-use batteries, which is unavoidable in the long run. Single-use should become a rare exception, and soon.

No performance and durability requirements for portable batteries. The current proposal addresses performance and durability of industrial and EV batteries only. The provision should have been extended to all portable batteries instead.

Electric bikes are excluded from the obligation to collect used batteries separately. The Commission’s proposal does not set specific mandatory collection rates for ‘light means of transport’. Such regulation would open the door for manufacturers to collect e-bike lithium batteries together with other portable batteries, which would create a fire risk.

Portable batteries removal and replacement – potential loopholes. The proposal aims to address removability and replaceability, but it has a number of important gaps: a limited scope, excluding light means of transport, poor definition of removability and replaceability, and, finally, no mention of spare parts accessibility and information availability.

Low targets for recycling and material recovery. Recycling and recovery rates remain low today, but many battery components (lithium, nickel, cobalt) have a high technical recycling potential and high rates are already achieved in regions outside of Europe.

The minimum rates proposed by the Commission are insufficient. The targets should all be revised upwards and reach at least 70% for lithium by 2025 and 90% by 2030, and 95% for cobalt, nickel and copper in 2025, then 98% in 2030.

Recycled content – too little, too late. The proposal includes measures to re-introduce secondary (recycled) materials into the battery value chain. A positive step, but foreseen too far into the future, and leaving portable batteries out of the scope.

 

What now?

The European Parliament and the EU’s national governments in the European Council are reviewing the rules proposed by the European Commission. Both Parliament and Council now have the opportunity to improve the rules and make the EU sustainable battery policy a real success story. We can only hope they take it.

Meanwhile, European standardisers and researchers also have a role to play, even once the Regulation is adopted by the EU institutions. Many provisions will need to be complemented by specific methodologies, technical standards and specifications. Aspects covered by standards include, for example, performance and durability or second-life batteries. In parallel, the methodologies on carbon footprint and recycled content, also key to the practical deployment of the rules, will be developed by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

The reality is bitter-sweet: it is encouraging that some of these processes are already underway, with a first draft standardisation request on several new specifications in batteries issued by the Commission. On the other hand, however, following the advice of the European standardisation organisations CEN and CENELEC, EU member states decided to reject this request, delaying the development of key standards to underpin the Battery Regulation.

ECOS is currently advocating, together with a number of organisations including our members the EEB, Transport & Environment and Deutsche Umwelthilfe, for the most ambitious standards and legal requirements and the creation of a truly sustainable battery value chain.

ECOS is co-funded by the European Commission and EFTA

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