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Car Emissions Guide for 2023: What Every EU Buyer Should Know

Buying a car but you’re worried about air pollution? Read this article and get a rundown on key facts, considerations, and EU legislation for car CO2 emissions.

The impact of cars on the environment

It’s no secret that transportation is a major source of air pollution in the modern-day world. For environmentally-conscious car buyers, this poses a serious issue and they want to know what kind of impact their car’s CO2 emissions will have as they form their purchasing decision.

So let’s look at some numbers and take an honest look into car emissions.

The first thing to know is that road transportation accounts for around 20% of all EU emissions, which is no small contribution. And more than half of that is due to, yes, cars.

Illustration: eCarsTrade / Data: European Parliament

Motorcycles and trucks are responsible for less than 40%, which might come as a surprise.

But driving isn’t the only source of pollution here. Bear in mind that emissions are created during the production and disposal of cars as well. And although cars emit most of their gases while they’re used on roads, as much as 15% of their emissions are created in production and disposal.

Illustration: eCarsTrade / Data: Autoexpress

How does that affect your purchasing decision?

Well, it mainly indicates that avoiding emissions completely is impossible. For example, If you buy a brand-new electric car, you’ll create fewer CO2 emissions while using the car (but not zero as electric cars still need to be charged) than driving an internal combustion engine vehicle.

However, you’ll still have to account for production and disposal, which can be problematic because of the difficulty with sourcing and recycling EV batteries.

The good news is that buyers are spoiled for choice when deciding on a car, and that includes having a say in what kind of impact they’re making on the environment. 

And while causing zero pollution isn’t currently an attainable goal for car owners, there are choices you can make to ensure you’re keeping your emissions low. More on that in the following sections.

Current EU legislation regarding car emissions 

Apart from the direct impact their vehicle has on the environment, which may or may not concern car buyers, there is another element that could influence your purchasing decision. And that’s current legislation which, like it or not, impacts all buyers equally. 

So let’s review the principal aspects at play here: Euro Emission Standards and CO2 tax regulations.

Euro emission standards 

A key consideration for buyers, where emissions are concerned, are Euro Emissions Standards, a piece of EU legislature that regulates acceptable amounts of exhaust emissions for personal road vehicles.

Why is this an important element of the buying journey?

Several reasons. Firstly, understanding these regulations can help you choose a more environmentally friendly vehicle, and thus contribute to the EU’s collective efforts to cut down on emissions.

Secondly, non-compliance with Euro Emission Standards can result in fines. For example, some areas in Europe (notably, in big cities) have barred high-emission vehicles.

Brussels is one such area and the beginning and end of these ultra-low emissions zones are marked with a special road sign (see below).

Signs for low-emission zones in Belgium

The Euro Emission Standards were first introduced in 1992 and detail the amount of acceptable exhaust emissions (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, etc.) in cars.

Every five or so years, these standards are updated to further limit these harmful pollutants in our atmosphere. Once the standard is updated, all newly produced cars need to adhere to it. 

Here’s a brief history of when Euro Emission Standards were introduced:

Euro Emission Standard

Date of Introduction

Euro 1

31 December 1992

Euro 2

1 January 1997

Euro 3

1 January 2001

Euro 4

1 January 2006

Euro 5

1 January 2011

Euro 6

1 January 2015


So, if you’re buying a car that’s compliant with the Euro 6 Standard, that means your car’s emissions are within acceptable limits according to EU regulations and you may drive it anywhere in the EU.

Of course, if you buy a used car with a lower emission standard, you can still legally drive it almost everywhere, excluding those low-emission zones (you need to be Euro 4 compliant or higher to go there). 

What’s the catch, you might ask. 

Well, there really isn’t one. You see, passenger cars have an expiration date and can’t be driven forever, meaning the plan here is to slowly phase out high-emission cars, not limit or punish drivers.

Illustration: eCarsTrade / Data: European Parliament

If you’re wondering how you can find out what your future car’s emission standard is, this information is usually given in the car’s registration document.

Here it is in a German registration:

Euro Standard in a German registration document

Alternatively, you can also ask your car dealer and they should be able to provide this information for you.


CO2-based EU taxes for cars

In the EU, like in many other parts of the world, car-owners may be taxed based on the quantity of emissions their personal vehicle releases into the atmosphere.

This is where things get a bit complicated because, unlike Euro Emission Standards, these taxes are the purview of each member state, and not a single piece of EU legislation.

As a matter of fact, not all member states actually levy a CO2-based tax for cars. As of 2020, only three member states (out of 27) don’t tax car owners in this way: Estonia, Poland, and Lithuania.

Those that do, have their own set of rules on how taxes are applied. And in every case, the tax is calculated partially or totally on the CO2 emissions and/or fuel consumption of the vehicle.

For example, have a look at the regulations for Belgium below:

Find out how other countries tax CO2 emissions here

The three categories (columns) referenced here deal with acquisition, ownership and company cars meaning the tax you’ll be paying is calculated at the moment of purchase and adapted during your ownership of the vehicle. Companies operating a fleet have additional considerations to take into account, such as a solidarity contribution.

One more important thing to note here is that these regulations also have the power to reward for being environmentally conscious. For example, buying a zero-emissions vehicle in Belgium will earn you a bonus, meaning you can get money back on your purchase: a powerful motivator for going electric.  

Overreaching legislation and taxation is usually a bad thing. However, in the case of car emissions, standards and taxes aren’t just justifiable, they are necessary if we want to shoot for a more sustainable future. So choose a low or zero-emissions vehicle and enjoy increased freedom and lower taxation as you use it.

Other considerations for buyers

Apart from choosing a vehicle that’s compliant with EU’s latest regulations on car emissions, there’s much more you can do to minimize your impact on the environment while driving.

Let’s look at some other factors to consider when browsing for your next car.


New vs used cars

It’s only logical to assume that a brand-new car will emit fewer greenhouse gases and generally be better for the environment than an older model.

Technology is always evolving and car-makers are adamant about curbing emissions and making vehicles more efficient.

However, remember what we said before: not all emissions are created on the road, and choosing a new vehicle will result in emissions being created during the production process.

On the other hand, choosing a reliable used car will prevent this spike in pollution. In addition, since the last Euro Emission Standard (Euro 6) came into force in 2015, you can buy a car that’s up to eight years old and still be compliant with the latest emission standards.

We can conclude that used cars are more environmentally friendly than new cars, as long as they’re not too old and have a spotless service history.


Big vs small cars

The bigger your car is, the more fuel it will need to burn while it’s on the road because they’re heavier than smaller cars. And that results in more emissions.

For example, SUVs, arguably today’s most popular car choice, emit considerably more carbon dioxide than smaller cars, which makes them the bigger pollutant.

Illustration: eCarsTrade / Data: Guardian

Now, buying a smaller car might make sense for everyday use, especially if you just need it for your daily errands and work commute. But what about vacations or longer trips to visit family when you have more people in the car and more things packed in the trunk?

A good solution might be to buy small for your daily needs and rent big for out-of-town trips. That way, you’ll be saving money on gas and keeping your emissions low at least most of the time. And every little counts.


Petrol vs diesel vs electric engines

EVs are all the rage these days because they boast extremely low emissions on the road. However, buyers are all too quick to forget that these vehicles need to be charged with electricity which is often created by burning fossil fuels.

That means that even electric vehicles emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases, even if they do so indirectly.

Nevertheless, electric vehicles are the clear winner in the emissions game, especially if we’re talking about EVs produced and driven in Europe.


It’s simple. Europe is a global leader in renewable energy production, meaning the energy that’s used to power EVs comes largely from renewable sources and therefore doesn’t produce CO2 and other gases.

In the best-case scenario, an electric car that’s produced and driven in Sweden will cause 81% fewer emissions than petrol and 80% fewer emissions than diesel vehicles.

Illustration: eCarsTrade / Data: Transport & Environment

Therefore, while choosing between petrol and diesel engines won’t make much of a difference, buying an electric vehicle will definitely make you a greener car owner.

To make a long story short, you can indeed choose wisely when buying a low-emissions car. 

Car dealers around Europe are more than able to offer you the perfect vehicle for your needs and factor in the right make, size, and engine type to help you reduce your footprint.

That includes used car dealers as well, but only if they procure their vehicles from dependable sources, such as eCarsTrade, which can guarantee a car’s mileage, service history, and emission standard compliance.

eCarsTrade is a premium European ex-lease auction platform

So find the best combination that will fulfill all your needs and keep your emissions low, and then find a car dealer you can trust to make your dream car a reality. 

Car emissions in Europe's future

Let’s wrap up this discussion about CO2 emissions for cars by looking ahead and considering what the future will bring. After all, you’ll be driving your new car for years to come so knowing what’s in store can be beneficial.

As far as Euro Emission Standards are concerned, the current Euro 6 standard is on its way out, soon to be replaced by Euro 7. As it stands now, the new standard is expected to arrive in 2025 and further limit acceptable levels of exhaust emissions.

Apart from that, Euro 7 will also inaugurate some other strict regulations concerning air pollution. These include:

  • More rigorous testing to determine emission levels.
  • Emission limits for tires and brakes (in addition to exhaust emissions).
  • Longer emission compliance periods.
  • EV battery capacity assessments.

Euro 7 is going to be Europe’s last emission standard. Starting in 2035, the EU plans to ban all ICE vehicles at which point only fully electric new cars will be sold.  

Well, with one exception, that is. Since big strides have been made in the development of carbon-neutral fuels, also called e-fuels, the EU has included these kinds of vehicles in the policy. So apart from EVs, Europe’s roads will also be populated by e-fueled cars, such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The anatomy of a hydrogen fuel cell engine

However, just like with Euro Standards, this ban won’t affect existing cars. You’ll still be able to drive your petrol or diesel automobile because the ban will only affect new cars produced after 2030.

All in all, from an environmental standpoint, the future of road transport in Europe looks bright and carbon-neutral. 

There are numerous incentives for purchases and tax exclusions linked to electric cars. In September of 2022, The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) published a super detailed look into different EV incentives for all EU countries

Also, there are incentives for setting up EV charging stations. If you're thinking about investing in electric vehicles, you should definitely read about all of the incentives for EV charging infrastructure

But the legislation and policies that are to come will in no way limit or constrain your choice of vehicle today.

Make the right choice and cut car emissions

We hope this article has helped you understand how cars impact our environment and explained all the considerations you should take into account when buying your next vehicle.

Remember, we are the ones causing excess CO2 emissions in our atmosphere and we can take action to cut this pollution as much as possible.

Stay informed, choose wisely, and help the world combat air pollution even when you’re commuting to work or visiting your loved ones by making your next car low-emission.