Why cars can't be greener: top 6 myths from car makers

Posted by jamie — 2 December 2011 at 9:00am - Comments
Stormtroopers outside Acea car lobbying meeting in Brussels
All rights reserved. Credit: Philip Reynaers/Greenpeace
Stormtroopers outside Acea car lobbying meeting in Brussels

Despite claims that they are eco-friendly, car makers are notorious for getting in the way of regulations that will bring down CO2 emissions from their vehicles. They've spread myths about how reduction targets will affect their business, but time and again they've been proven wrong.

As the European car maker's lobbying body ACEA decides whether to support proposals for new targets in 2020 and beyond, it's worth comparing what VW and its competitors said a few years ago when current targets for 2015 were being discussed, and what actually happened...

Myth 1: "We can't do it"
In 2007, when European Commissioners were considering an emissions target of 120g of CO2 per km by 2012, VW and other car makers said this was "technically not accomplishable". As a result, the target was weakened the target to 130g/km and delayed until 2015.

But since this target became law, improvements have been made very quickly – so quickly in fact that some companies are on track to meet the 2015 target early. Some, such as Renault, have even set their own internal standards which exceed the legal requirements. So much for not being "feasible"

Myth 2: "The industry will collapse"
Doom-mongering is a favourite tactic of any industry facing change, and Wikileaks cables show that in 2008 Audi argued that legally-binding emissions targets would destroy the car industry. Other car makers did their own soothsaying, saying it would constitute "a massive industrial political intervention at the expense of the entire European, and especially the German, automobile industry".

You may have noticed that this hasn't happened. The rules on CO2 emissions have, in fact, provided an incentive for innovation and competitiveness. Professor Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an expert on the German car industry, has noted that "the experience with the regulation of CO2 emissions from cars shows that fuel consumption standards can improve the innovativeness of the sector significantly."

Myth 3: "We need more time"
While lobbying against the CO2 emissions targets which are now law, car makers not only complained that the 120g/km target was too low, but they couldn't achieve it by 2012. So it was moved back to 2015. They claimed that it takes a long time to develop new models, and that cars which would be on sale in 2012 were already in the pipeline.

However, the CO2 targets don't relate to individual vehicles, but work as an average across the whole fleet so the balance of emissions can be distributed amongst the different models of cars. And so car makes have increased the sales of small efficient cars and, in some cases, discontinued car models that emit more CO2.

And car makers use mid-model 'facelifts' to pep up their products, including adding fuel-saving technologies. Earlier this year for instance, Volkswagen introduced a Passat with a facelift which has boosted efficiency. So it's not true that car makers need to wait until the end of the production cycle to introduce improvements.

Myth 4: "It will cost too much"
Another favourite dodge tactic is that of cost, claiming that the cost of cars will increase. In 2007, lobbying body ACEA claimed that the CO2 targets would add up to €3,000 to the cost of a new car. "For many consumers, cars could become unaffordable," it sadly reported.

And yet as CO2 emissions have fallen, so have prices, even when adjusted for inflation. Dudenhöffer said that "the adaptation and use of new technology went much faster and was less costly than many expected", pointing to stop-start technology (which shuts off the engine when the car isn't moving) as an inexpensive improvement. Currently, this adds just €250-300 to the price tag and as demand for the system increases, costs will fall further and it's likely to be included as standard on compact and larger models from next year.

Myth 5: "Our customers simply don't want low-emission cars"
If there's no market for low-emission cars, the argument goes, how can car makers be expected to produce them? But demand is shaped by aggressive marketing campaigns and controlling prices, and the bulk of marketing budgets go on bigger cars with greater emissions (which also happen to make bigger profits).

Even ACEA admitted in its 2010 economic report that it has become clear that customers do want low-emission vehicles, especially because fuel prices are rising. That includes businesses that run large fleets, when the overall cost of running their cars is more important than the initial price. Petrol prices look like they're going to stay high, so fuel efficiency will become even more important. And as efficiency improves, CO2 emissions go down.

Myth 6: "But we really do care about the environment"
Ah, that old chestnut. VW's green advertising is a classic example of talking the talk but not walking the walk, but other car makers also make exaggerated claims about their stance on environmental issues.

As mentioned above, the largest profits come from the high-end cars – the 4x4s and SUVs – that guzzle petrol and belch CO2. The business models of the car companies are geared towards this, rather than promoting fuel efficiency or alternative fuels. VW wants to be "the most eco-friendly automaker in the world", but the company's first hybrid, the Touareg SUV, emits 193g of CO2 per km, far more than the 130g target set for 2015.

Read the full briefing which debunks the car industry's favourite myths

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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