Now is not the time to slow the momentum on better cars

September 16, 2008

Editorial by Aat Peterse, T&E Policy Officer So it can be done! The news from our third progress report on car makers’ efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions shows BMW as the star reducer at 7.3%. What is perhaps even more telling is that this progress was made across the entire fleet of cars that BMW brings to market.

The significance of this is that high performance is no longer incompatible with fuel efficiency. The days when car makers built a couple of ‘eco’ cars for a good conscience are over. A number of the largest brands have efficient versions of every model throughout the entire range they offer the customer. True, overall performance was not as good, the overall reduction of 1.7% still far behind what is needed. But it was up on 0.7% in 2006, and there is a general sense that the car industry is turning a corner, even if it is still reluctant to open its eyes to the fact.

Car companies are like huge bureaucracies that take a long time to change policies, but once they have changed, that is difficult to undo. In an interesting article ‘The road ahead’ earlier this month, The Economist newspaper uses the metaphor of a supertanker changing course.

Fuel efficiency is on its way to becoming part of the definition of added value in buying a car. The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated if there is to be any realistic hope that a rapidly motorising world can ever get some sort of grip on the unsustainability of individual motoring.

We believe that this change comes directly from the efforts of policy makers in Brussels and Sacramento to develop ambitious CO2 emission reduction or fuel efficiency standards (CO2 emissions are directly linked to fossil fuel consumption). The market for new cars generates too feeble a demand for increased efficiency to have brought this change about on its own. In the larger new car markets in both Europe and North America, roughly half the people that decide on which new car to buy don’t pay its fuel bills – their employers do.

Without a sustained public policy aimed at increasing fuel efficiency in cars, the change we are beginning to see in the industry would not have come about.
And it appears The Economist agrees with us. ‘There’s nothing like … the prospect of swingeing new penalties on carbon-spewing vehicles to concentrate the minds of the world’s car makers,’ it says in its opening sentence.

That’s why the result of the vote in the industry committee (see page 1) is such bad news for efforts to achieve sustainable transport and a sustainable automobile industry. The committee voted for postponement of the compliance date, weakening of the targets for reduction and lowering of the penalties for non-compliance that were proposed by the Commission.

If the proposed directive is to be weakened like this, the risk is that the gathering momentum for change towards a more efficiency oriented industry will be lost.

This momentum is very fragile. For it to continue, the car industry needs to have a clear set of requirements imposed on it so it can work out a viable programme for development. This means multiple deadlines, challenging targets and meaningful penalties for non-compliance. More specifically this means that the deadlines and targets must leave no doubt whatsoever about the need for the automotive industry to sustain and step up its efforts towards CO2 emissions reduction from today for the next decade or two at least.

The first, encouraging steps of the last year or two towards more efficiency must develop into a relentless drive over the next 15 or 20 years. It can be done. It is up to MEPs and ministers to decide whether it will be done.

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