The EU has launched a number of initiatives (legislation and voluntary commitments) in order to stimulate the production and marketing of more environmentally-friendly cars (see below).
However, some transport experts doubt whether these measures will bring a sustainable solution in the long run because the rapid growth of car use and transport needs in general (especially in developing countries) will offset the benefits brought by the introduction of greener cars in mature markets.
Reducing vehicles' emissions and changing consumers' behaviour
Cars account for 10% of all emissions of carbon dioxide – the principal greenhouse gas – in the EU. While cars with diesel engines emit less CO2 than the ones working with petrol, diesel engines release more cancer-causing particles in the air.
Up till now, the Commission's strategy for reducing CO2 emissions has been mainly based on voluntary commitments from the car industry (first pillar of the CO2 strategy). In 1998, the Association of European Automobile Manufacturers (ACEA) promised to reduce CO2 emissions from new passenger cars sold in the EU to 140g CO2/km for by the year 2008. Japanese and Korean car producers made a similar commitment for 2009. However, the latest figures reveal that average emissions still stand at around 160g/km (EURACTIV 29/08/2006). The Commission now wants to impose a mandatory cap of 130g/km, which car producers will have to reach through vehicle-technology improvements by 2012 (see LinksDossier on Cars & CO2).
As regards other vehicle emissions, such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOX), which have been shown to aggravate respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases and to cause cancer, the Commission has introduced compulsory limits, for both petrol and diesel cars, via its 'Euro' Directives (see our LinksDossier on Euro V).
The EU also hoped to encourage the use of greener cars by making it compulsory to provide consumers with information on the CO2 emissions of cars that are offered for sale or lease (see Directive 1999/94/EC). This was the second pillar of its CO2 strategy.
However, the 4 x 4 vehicles 'fashion' shows that consumers are not ready to change their behaviour. These vehicles, like many other high-performance brands, consume much more fuel and therefore produce much higher than average carbon emissions. The strong demand for these types of vehicle has made it difficult for carmakers to take more commitment towards green cars.
Another path being considered by the Commission (so-called third pillar) is the creation of fiscal incentives for greener cars. On 5 July 2005, it presented a proposal for a Directive on passenger car taxation that includes the introduction of a CO2 element into the tax base of annual circulation taxes and registration taxes. Although MEPs have backed the proposal, the need for unanimity in Council on matters relating to taxation means the proposal is likely to be vetoed (EURACTIV 05/09/2006).
Equipping vehicles with new technologies
Because the amount of emissions is directly related to fuel consumption, the automotive industry must produce cars with lower-fuel consumption by improving the efficiency of engines and making vehicles lighter if it is to meet the above standards.
Several powertrain technologies (advanced combustion engines, mild hybrid, hybrid and fuel cell propulsion) are currently being tested. The best technologies are due to appear on the market once technological and commercial barriers have been surmounted. The cost of these new technologies is currently very high and consumers are not ready to pay a lot more for cars. In the future, diversification in different powertrain technologies is expected.
Towards sulphur-free fuel
Since 1 January 2005 the limit on the sulphur content of petrol and diesel is 50 ppm and member states are required to start phasing in ultra-low sulphur fuel with a maximum 10 ppm sulphur content (see Commission page on Automotive Fuel Quality).
Another way to make cars greener is to use alternative fuels. In its 2001 Communication on alternative fuels, the EU set itself the objective of a 20% substitution of traditional fuels in the road transport sector (gasoline and conventional diesel) by alternative fuels before the year 2020. It also identifies three alternative solutions as promising options, that individually have the potential to achieve more than 5% of total transport fuel consumption over the next 20 years: biofuels which are already available, natural gas in the medium term and hydrogen and fuel cells in the long term (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on alternative fuels for transport).
To complement the above measures, research into cleaner and safer transport has been given priority at EU level. The 7th Framework Programme, launched at the end of 2006, allocates around €4 billion specifically to transport research activities, such as research on the 'greening' of transport and decongesting transport corridors. A further €2 billion would be allocated to energy research, including research on hydrogen fuel cells and renewable fuel production.
Making air conditioning more sustainable
Cars' air conditioning systems are generally considered to be responsible for the greater part of fluorinated gas leakages into the atmosphere. Because of their high Global Warming Potential (GWP), the Commission has presented legislation to ban some of these gases (see our LinksDossier on fluorinated gases and climate change)
Equipping vehicles with information systems can improve traffic management, leading to smoother traffic flows and reduced congestion and noise (see our LinksDossier on e-Safety).
Reducing pollution from tyres
The EU adopted, in November 2005, legislation aimed at cutting the proportion of certain toxic chemicals used in the production of car tyres by 2010. According to the Commission, car tyres release toxic particles in the air when they wear out, which can be a cause of cancer. The aim of the directive is both to reduce the emission of tyre debris containing the toxic substances and to establish uniform rules throughout the Union's internal market.
Recycling end-of-life vehicles
Every year, end-of-life vehicles in the EU generate between 8 and 9 million tonnes of waste. To manage this problem, the European Parliament and the Council adopted, in September 2000, a Directive which makes vehicle dismantling and recycling more environmentally friendly, sets clear quantified targets for re-use, recycling and recovery of vehicles and their components and pushes producers to manufacture new vehicles also with a view to their recyclability.