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29 January 2007

How they’ve failed us in Brussels

How a voluntary agreement to reduce car emissions has failed - it's time for tough, legally binding

By Sian Berry

I can rarely be found waiting on tenterhooks for a Communication from the European Commission, but that is what has mainly concerned me this week, since the document in question will cover a subject close to my heart. It will determine whether the EU will finally force car manufacturers to cut the carbon dioxide emissions from their vehicles.

In case you’re not a follower of the goings on in Brussels, you should know that a Communication is essentially a policy paper which is non-binding, but sets out a detailed agenda for what will happen on an issue in the EU. The Communication on cars and carbon dioxide emissions has been delayed several times now – including twice since December – and the content has suddenly been thrown into doubt, so all of us in the business of promoting cleaner cars are completely preoccupied with it.

The need for new mandatory targets for car emissions stems from the gross failure of the current, voluntary agreement. Brussels-based NGO, Transport & Environment, obtained figures for individual manufacturers last year and found that three-quarters of them were failing to reduce emissions at the rate needed to meet the targets, and the European Commission’s annual report concluded that the industry had to step up their efforts and that ‘the situation is not satisfactory’.

The voluntary agreement was made in 1998 between European car-makers and the EU, and the industry promised to cut average carbon dioxide levels from its fleet to 140 g/km by 2008 and 120 g/km by 2012. With only a year to go, they are now at 162 g/km and last year improved by just 1%, making it impossible to reach the target.

Leading up to this week, we had been gaining confidence that the Commissioners were prepared to stand up to industry lobbying and bring in mandatory targets. From the middle of 2006, noises coming from members grew more robust by the week, led by Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas. When the publication of the document was delayed in December, he said he was confident that January’s announcement would include tough, legally binding targets.

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But all that changed last weekend, when it emerged that Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Günter Verheugen had cooled in their enthusiasm for the plan, with Verheugen letting slip to a French newspaper that he believed there would be no binding targets in the finished document.

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Barroso – exposed recently by my Belgian colleagues from the ‘4x4info’ group as the owner of a giant VW Touareg – was reported in the Wall Street Journal Europe as saying, “It is against the European concept of a free society to micromanage people’s choices according to one model of supposedly correct behaviour decreed by self-appointed moral authorities.” You could hardly call him ‘on side’ any more.

Rumours circulated that the targets could not only be weakened but abandoned altogether. We heard of unprecedented industry lobbying of the Commission – even more intense than that in reponse to the REACH directive on chemicals, which was eventually watered down in favour of weaker requirements for companies.

They are trying to blame their failure on everything from consumers ‘demanding more powerful cars’ to European safety rules ‘adding too many weighty components’, to the ‘excessive cost of complying’. This is all rubbish, particularly on cost, where manufacturers have a long history of exaggeration. Fifteen years ago they said a catalytic converter would cost us each 700 Euros, but they now add just 70 to the price of a new car. Regulation clearly worked in that case by stimulating innovation and quick thinking when it was needed.

And we can lobby too! Environment groups across Europe have been collaborating to push for mandatory targets for years, and have got most national governments to speak up – including, crucially, the UK and German governments over whom the car industry usually has a lot of influence. After receiving a strong recommendation for action from parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, our environment, transport and energy ministers wrote a joint letter to the Commission, and this week the German environment minister chipped in with his support for tough regulations.

We have redoubled our efforts this week of course. By Friday, letters to individual Commissioners had been sent from every UK campaign I can think of, and there was a strongly worded joint letter from ten major European NGOs. My own letter said, “The 120 g/km average has been an industry target for 11 years now, but the date for achieving it has been postponed time and again and now enough is enough. It is time for the EU to show real leadership on climate change,” which I hoped might stir any ‘Braveheart’ tendencies in the Commissioners’ souls.

The new document, when it comes, won’t be the end of things. The policies announced will then have to be turned into legislation, which could mean up to three years of further diligence and campaigning. But the major elements of any new laws will be set now, so it all comes down to the Commissioners holding their nerve and doing their duty for the people of the EU. An announcement is expected on Wednesday.