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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 November 2007, 00:03 GMT
Car industry balks at emission targets
By Dominic Laurie
Europe business reporter, BBC News, Brussels

Although Al Gore recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, one of his big messages - that we should drive less - is not getting through.

Fiat Punto
Ever more cars being made and sold, so overall emissions are rising

At the moment, car ownership around the world is growing by a massive 5% each year.

So it follows that if car makers do not make their engines more efficient, then carbon emissions will grow at a similar rate.

All this at a time when all countries are being urged not only to halt their rising CO2 emissions, but even to make efforts to reduce them.

The European Union (EU) has taken note, and its institutions are in attack mode on car companies and the CO2 emissions that fall under their umbrella.

Earlier this year, the European Commission said it wanted the average new car made in the EU to emit no more than 130g of CO2 per kilometre by 2012. The latest figures for 2004 show the average is still as high as 162g/km.

Shared responsibility

The EU's final proposals will be published next month. Meanwhile, Europe's car industry says it is not opposed to having targets in general, though it says the 2012 deadline will arrive too soon for the new rules to be applied to all models.

chart showing CO2 emissions from cars

The car industry says concrete laws, rather than the voluntary agreements that have existed up till now, are required to create clarity and help them to plan for the future. It also points out that engines are getting more and more efficient ever year.

But the industry also says it should not be totally up to them to achieve the reductions.

A bit of the burden should fall on tyre technology, some on new taxation policies, some on developing alternative fuels. and on reducing congestion.

And a bit should fall on the driver too.

How to drive

Car makers say we all need to learn how to drive in a more fuel efficient way.

Amongst the initiatives they support, one is called Eco Driving; courses where you learn how to use less fuel simply by driving a bit differently.

I went on one that was run by the firm Drivolution in Paal, a town about 50 kilometres north east of Brussels.

Before I hopped in the car, my instructor Eric Michiels said he could show me how to reduce my fuel consumption by some 8% - for good.

This is what he said I should be doing:

  • drive in fourth gear when your instinct says you should be in third
  • brake earlier
  • accelerate more slowly
  • do not ride the clutch
  • never rev above 2000 on the dial

After the lesson, a print out from a computer hooked up to the car bore this out. During the lesson I had been driving economically, more so than usual.

Institutions and businesses in Belgium that incur significant costs from driving are buying into the message.

For example, Eric recently taught school bus and municipal truck drivers from the city of Ghent how to conserve fuel.

Speedy consumption

Another factor in conserving fuel is not just how you drive, but how fast you go.

Those who drive at 130 kilometres per hour (kph) use a lot more fuel than those who reduce their speed to 110kph; disproportionately more than the 20kph difference.

Porsche's new Cayman S on show at the Brussels Motor Show
Speed limits could make fast cars less popular

That is because above a certain speed, the wind resistance builds up and you need a lot more fuel to push your vehicle through it.

It was this realisation that prompted the Swedes in the 1990's to lower limits on some motorways - though after a few years they reversed the decision when it became unpopular and hard to enforce.

Rapid change?

But if driving more slowly does reduce fuel consumption, are proposals to lower speed limits actually being considered anywhere in the EU?

nowhere is this debate more topical than in Germany. Just last month, the SPD, which governs in coalition with Angela Merkel's conservatives, voted in favour of a 130kph speed limit.

Remember that some of the country's Autobahns or motorways famously have no speed restriction at all.

The ability to drive as fast as you like is close to the heart of many, though not all, Germans.

The term "Freie Fahrt fur freie Burger" - roughly translated as "Free travel for free citizens" - was coined by its car industry during the Cold War.

And it is an industry that has the ear of Chancellor Merkel; not surprising when you consider that one in seven jobs are in one way or another linked to the country's car industry.

In the past, German manufacturers have relied heavily on sales of big and powerful cars. If speed limits were introduced, or lowered, these cars could become less attractive to consumers, both at home and abroad.

Mrs Merkel responded to the SPD plans by telling German TV that "this is not going to happen with me. Traffic jams are at least as harmful to the climate as speeding".

And what about Sweden?

This year, a decade after their bold attempt to use speed restrictions to cut emissions, the parliament has voted for those same limits to go in the opposite direction and be raised by 10kph across the board.

As better car technology makes it easier to drive fast, it is hard to persuade us drivers not to put the pedal to the metal. Even if our conscience tells us otherwise.

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