Green cars

The EU is promoting the marketing of greener cars via a combination of binding and non-binding measures. ‘Clean vehicles’ include low emission conventionally fuelled vehicles as well as those powered by alternative fuels. The production of such vehicles, generating less CO2 emissions, requires innovation in fuels, alternative powertrain technology, noise reduction and new materials.

Motor vehicles have become the prime means of personal and commercial mobility in today's world. Growing prosperity has led to a spectacular rise in car use - a phenomenon being repeated in the new member states which joined the Union in 2004. In China and other booming countries with looser anti-pollution rules than the EU, trends show major increases in private transportation. This success has generated serious concerns about the environmental effects of vehicle use, in particular traffic congestion, air pollution, traffic-related diseases and noise.

Moreover, while 90% of transport (road/rail/air/sea) depends on oil, resources are declining. After a hundred years of exploration and extraction, few new oil reserves are being found. If supply declines and demand continues growing, the world could encounter serious shortages. Some experts warn that oil could become excessively costly.

These concerns have led the EU to formulate the objective of decoupling economic growth from transport growth. The EU has come up with legislation and initiatives to drive the change towards cleaner cars while promoting a shift towards more sustainable transport modes such as trains, inland shipping, publict transport and bikes (see our  LinksDossier on Sustainable mobility). 

Interest in cleaner, less polluting vehicles and fuel has grown rapidly in recent years. Emissions from petrol and diesel engines have been significantly reduced in the last decade, driven mainly by European legislation, and will continue to be reduced in the future.

New cars put on the market are subject to stricter environmental legislation and benefit from improved technologies which make them less polluting. Old cars (10 or 15 years old) are problematic but it is politically difficult to withdraw them from the market as they are owned by middle- or low-wage families who might be dependent on them for their social inclusion.

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).

  • Alternative fuels

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).

  • Transport research

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)

  • e-safety

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.



Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas  said: "To respect the Kyoto commitments and reduce our oil dependence, we must reduce CO2 emissions from transport, the sector whose emissions keep growing." He blames the automotive industry for the lack of progress in this field, saying: "The technology is there to do this, but it has not been done as promised by the voluntary agreement." He has therefore pushed for the introduction of legally binding rules, asying: "I am sure that this will provide the necessary innovation incentive which will make Europe produce cleaner cars."

The European Council for Automotive R & D (EUCAR), CONCAWE (oil companies association) and the Commission Joint Research Center have carried out a study analysing the Well-to-Wheels energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for a wide range of potential future fuel and powertrain options. It shows that:

  • A shift to renewable or low-carbon sources generally remains expensive and energy-intensive and does not always deliver significant GHG reductions;
  • no single fuel pathway offers a short term route to high volumes of renewable or low-carbon fuel;
  • contributions from a number of technologies/routes will be needed;
  • blends with conventional fuels and niche applications should be considered if they can produce significant GHG reductions at reasonable cost. 

The study also points out the need for the oil industry to work together with the auto manufacturers to develop a phased implementation in changes to the fuel specifications.

The European automakers association (ACEA) said the proposed 25% reduction in NOx for gasoline engines, under the Euro V and VI directives, are "challenging," "costly" and "not justified" by findings on air pollution. It added that reaching this target may have a negative impact on fuel consumption and thus on efforts to reduce CO2 from passenger cars. 

Strict car safety regulations and consumer demand for safer, larger and more powerful cars have also prevented carmakers from realising their CO2 commitments, according to the group. 

ACEA Secretary-General Ivan Hodac said: "The problem of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions cannot be solved by targeting car manufacturers alone.” Rather, an “integrated approach” is needed, including CO2-related taxation of cars, tax incentives to encourage consumers to buy more eco-friendly models, increased investments in alternative fuels and teaching drivers to change their behaviour. 

Environmental NGOs nevertheless believe that the Commission's proposals lack ambition. The European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) and the European Environment Bureau (EEB) said they are "concerned about proposed limits for Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), harmful pollutants which cause smog, respiratory problems and acid rain". Kerstin Meyer of EEB said the new Euro V proposal were "very late" and "much too weak". 

Director of T&E Jos Dings said: “The one piece of good news is that legally binding options to reduce CO2 emissions are now on the table. The existing voluntary commitment with carmaker associations lacks transparency and fails to punish poor performance or reward progress.” 

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