VW and Daimler spark surprise green cars beauty contest

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Chemical companies and EU governments alike have been outflanked by major green initiatives announced by car companies at this week’s Geneva motor show.

First, on 4 March the German car company Volkswagen suggested that it would not use legislative loopholes to meet EU fuel efficiency standards, wrong-footing the German government which has been pressing for more of them behind the scenes in Brussels.

Then, two days later, the luxury automaker Daimler, which had been defying EU F-gas regulations confounded green critics – and the chemicals giant Honeywell – by announcing a planned switch to a natural refrigerant-based air conditioning system.  

Bas Eickhout, the Green MEP and rapporteur on the EU’s proposed F-gas regulation told EurActiv that Daimler's statement seemed like “a very positive communication” – so long as it did not involve a rewriting of existing EU law.

“These kinds of policies are driving industry to do these leapfrogging technologies,” he said. “This is exactly what we’ve been promoting.”

Since 1 January 2013, Daimler has been in breach of the EU’s 2006 Mac (mobile air conditioning) Directive because of its use of the refrigerant HFC-134a, which has a global warming potential (gwp) 1,400 times higher than carbon dioxide.

Daimler said internal tests had showed dangerously flammability in a much less-polluting replacement refrigerant developed by Honeywell. But environmentalists were incensed, with the Liberal MEP Chris Davies denouncing the company as “evil bastards”.  

As such, Daimler declaration of intent - along with fellow German car-makers Audi, BMW, Porsche and VW - to switch to a CO2-based system with a gwp of just 1 caught its detractors on the hop.

“Honeywell are very happy to get involved in a green beauty contest because HFO-1234yf is the most environmentally-preferred solution for the car industry,” Paul Sanders, the director of Honeywell’s fluorines department in Europe told EurActiv. “But there should be no extension of the EU’s deadline for implementation,” he added.

Delaying tactic

Daimler’s announcement followed a call by Germany’s federal environment agency for a CO2 switchover – in return for a three year delay in the EU’s implementation of the air conditioning law.

It left Honeywell, which thought it had patented a new low-carbon industry standard, rubbing its eyes in disbelief.

“This is all part of a delaying tactic, where Daimler flouts EU law to enable their economic advantage by continuing to use the existing product,” Sanders said.  

German firms had invested massively in CO2 air conditioning units but it would take time for such products to come to market, he said.

Honeywell’s argument that CO2-based systems are more expensive, less fuel efficient, and generally unreliable, has support from bodies such as the Society of Automobile Engineers. 

Death zone

But one technical expert working with a wide range of industrial coolant systems told EurActiv that in his view, 1234yf was a particularly flammable toxin that should not be standardised.

“It was clear to us even in 2008 that that substance is flammable and burns down to hydrofluoric acid,” he said. “If you had an accident involving just one car in a confined environment such as a tunnel, maybe 100-200 metres of it would become a death zone.”

The expert said that, manufactured in bulk, HFO-1234yf was more expensive than CO2, between 5-10% less fuel efficient, and not particularly good for the environment, even though it has a low gwp figure of 4.

“This substance decomposes fast in the atmosphere but it decomposes into trifluoroacetic acid and in my opinion it is not the right thing to do on a large scale, globally,” he said. The acid has no known degradation mechanism in water.

Daimler’s pitch to upend an environmental record often viewed as one of Europe’s worst will face competition from Volkswagen, another German car company once denounced as a climate renegade.

The world’s greenest car-maker?

Speaking in Geneva, the chairman of VW’s management board, Professor Martin Winterkorn said that the company was well on the way to becoming the world’s greenest car-maker by 2018.

Specifically, Winterkorn said that VW would meet the EU’s proposed 2020 fuel efficiency standard of 95g grams of CO2 per km (g/CO2 per km) – the first car company to make such a commitment – and he hinted that it would do so without the use of loopholes.

“Now is the time to initiate innovations so that efficient technologies and alternative powertrains can be widely used faster,” he said.

Last October, the EU’s energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, wrote to Winterkorn assuring him that the EU’s law would not hurt VW because proposed rules for super-credits had been relaxed, a measure the company now appears poised to disregard.  

Volkswagen officials contacted by EurActiv declined to elaborate any further on Winterkorn’s words but his statement won preliminary green plaudits.

“This makes the company more forward thinking than any other German car manufacturer,” Franziska Achterberg, the EU transport director for Greenpeace told EurActiv. 

“It also puts them ahead of the German government whose proposals would introduce loopholes that weaken and delay the EU’s longstanding 2020 climate target.”

The EU’s proposed fuel efficiency standard includes provisions for super-credits that can be granted to low CO2-emitting cars, marginally offsetting manufacturer obligations to reduce total fleet emissions. 

German bid to widen ‘loopholes’

While green groups object to the entire concept, Germany has launched a behind-the-scenes push in Brussels for these ‘loopholes’ to be widened.

German documents used in Brussels negotiations, seen by EurActiv, advocate lowering the emissions bar at which cars qualify for super-credits, allowing such credits to be ‘banked’, tripling a multiplier effect for them, scrapping caps on the amount of cars eligible, and extending the period over which the scheme operates.

The European Commission responded with a ‘non-paper’ estimating that the German proposals would raise the EU’s 95g target by between 4g-16g, and in extremis by 28g.

Berlin countered with a paper claiming that the effect would be “a slight – and only temporary – overstepping of the fleet target value of 95g CO2/km by between 1.3 and 3.6g CO2/km.”

But beyond the back and forth, Greenpeace says that the general acknowledgement that loopholes may not be needed to meet the EU’s fuel efficiency standard is highly significant.

“Germany’s biggest car company has suggested that it will meet the EU’s climate targets without using loopholes,” Achterberg said. “The German government should sit up and listen.”

Timeline: 
  • 24 April 2013: European Parliament’s environment committee to vote on CO2 in cars proposals
  • May 2013: European Parliament committee vote on CO2 in Vans
  • 2014: Proposed deadline for EU decision on 2025/2030 targets
  • 2015: 130 grams of CO2 per km target to be enforced across Europe
  • 2020: Proposed deadline for 95g/km target for cars
  • 2025: European Commission could impose another milestone on the road to decarbonsiation by 2050
  • 2030: European Commission could impose another milestone on the road to decarbonsiation by 2050
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