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Europe's car emissions

From Economist| February 13 , 2007 17:50 BJT

YOU know a row has turned venomous in the European Union when the squabblers resort to national name-calling. The current fight pits Europe's carmakers, notably from Germany, against the European Commission, which wants to impose sharp reductions on the amount of carbon dioxide that new cars sold in Europe from 2012 may pump out. The lobbying has been ferocious. When it comes to cars, national passions run deep.

Calling for tweaks to the plan in favour of gas-guzzling cars, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said her country would “fight with all its strength” to get its way. The boss of Porsche talked last month of a “business war” against countries that make mostly smaller cars, such as France and Italy. Volkswagen told the Commission the cuts were unworkable.

And so at the last minute, the proposals, announced on February 7th, were watered down: they would now trim the CO2 emissions of the average new car sold in Europe to 130 grams per km driven, a cut of about a fifth from present levels. A further 10g of CO2/km would be saved with more efficient tyres, air-conditioning and so on.

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On the face of it, the ferocious lobbying is rather odd. Germany pledged that the fight against global warming would lie at the heart of its current six-month shift as president of the European Union.

The whiff of hypocrisy has not escaped the EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, who this month demanded that Germany should live up to its “nice speeches”. In case anyone missed the point, he let it be known that he was ditching his official Mercedes in favour of a hybrid car from Japan.

That hurts. Europeans are deeply nationalistic about the cars they drive. Nine out of the top ten cars sold in France in 2005 were French. German brands achieved the same score in their own home market. In Italy, Fiat and Lancia grabbed three out of the top five spots. Swedes love their Volvos and Saabs.

Horsepower also varies widely from country to country, and that matters. For all the improvements in engine technology, there remains a link between oomph under the bonnet, fuel consumed and the amount of CO2 you leave trailing behind you. Germans, Swedes and British drivers favour relatively powerful engines, while the French and Italians make do with markedly less horsepower.

Size matters, too. French and Italian drivers may love speed, but they zoom about in relatively small cars. Practicality plays a part, and psychology. If you live in an ancient, congested city, a tiny car is all you need. You can also park it near your inamorata's flat, which is cool.

There is no inherent difficulty in making cars that emit 130gCO2/km. It is just hard to meet the target if you want a big car, or one with blistering acceleration. Italy's top two sellers, the Fiat Punto and Panda, already match or beat the proposed target. Several Peugeot, Citroën and Renault diesels do even better. But these are small cars, or mid-sized runabouts with sluggish acceleration. None of which is much help to firms with luxury and performance at the centre of their brands. The average new Porsche emits 297gCO2/km.

The commission proposal must now be considered by national governments and the European Parliament. More fights loom. Makers of beefy cars, worried that they cannot hit CO2 targets as individual companies, want average emissions calculated across the entire European market. Mrs Merkel wants different targets for different weight-classes of car.

The carmakers say that they are being made to carry too much of the burden for cutting emissions. Cutting traffic congestion, they argue, can be more cost-effective. They may win some of the coming fights in Brussels. But the European Commission is not alone in looking at CO2 emissions. National governments and local authorities across Europe are looking to link CO2 emissions to taxes, congestion charges and even parking fees. Change is coming, and big engines will not outrun it.

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