Tomorrow will see one of the first major climate-related policy announcements to follow the publication of the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report. In the wake of this alarming set of projections as to what we can expect our climate to do in the coming decades, the European Commission will set out its intentions in relation to vehicle efficiency standards. Transport remains a real problem sector, with carbon dioxide emissions rising across the EU. So what will Europe do to tackle the problem?
For years the motor industry has argued that emissions from cars and other vehicles should be the subject of voluntary action. Leave it to us they said, we can deliver without regulations or laws. They didn't though. Despite a voluntary code being put in place between European Union governments and car manufacturers to cut average vehicle emissions by roughly one-quarter between 1997 and 2008 - but we are way off course in meeting this aim. In the UK at the current rate of progress we will not meet this target until the early 2020s. A quick scan of the IPCC's results confirms that this is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change.
The EU must now bite the bullet and recognise that clear rules are needed to deliver sufficient emissions reductions in time. We need enforceable laws that deliver mandatory standards, and we need serious penalties for companies that do not comply. The EU must also look at new rules to govern vehicle advertising. Friends of the Earth undertook a survey of car adverts carried in the British press during September 2005. This revealed that almost 60% were for cars in the top two road-tax bands (that is, for the most polluting cars). Only 3% were for vehicles in the two most fuel-efficient bands.
Of course, as I write, the car companies are lobbying away in Brussels, putting over their messages about the need to limit "red tape" and to protect EU competitiveness. Sadly, a lot of policy makers will listen to them. Perhaps they should take a look at what happens in the real world, and think through the arguments about competitiveness a bit more carefully.
The recent experiences of the US car companies might help them to see a different point of view. In the US auto firms have campaigned for years against increased fuel efficiency standards. They said, as some European firms now say, that increased regulations requiring more efficient cars would harm their businesses and limit consumer choice. They invested a considerable proportion of their design and manufacturing capacity in gas-guzzling vehicles. They heavily promoted these vehicles with high budget advertising campaigns. Then the oil price shot up.
Car buyers decided they would rather have more efficient vehicles that were much cheaper to run. They went out and bought the cleaner Japanese models that were also for sale, including the new hybrid cars that have both petrol and electric power. The market share of Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Crysler shrank and their profits were badly dented. The Japanese cars were more efficient in part because of regulations introduced in Japan that require vehicles sold there to meet minimum fuel efficiency standards.
In a world that will increasingly be shaped by environmental constraints, does the EU really believe that competitiveness concerns can be traded against environmental ones? In the modern world it is necessary to see environmental questions as synonymous with competitiveness - not as an alternative. This is not only because of the impacts of climate change, but also because of impending resources constraints and more acute questions of energy security. Will greener cars make us better able to deal with that? Of course they will, and as the rest of the world wakes up to climate change and to the implications of ever more depleted oil resources, that is where the future market will be. It will be clean and green, not inefficient and wasteful.
Friends of the Earth believes that the EU should aim to double the fuel efficiency of all new cars sold within a decade. With this in mind, and as a first step, we are lobbying the European Union to put measures in place to average emissions to no more than 120g/km CO2 by 2012. This would mean petrol cars averaging around 56mpg and diesel cars around 62mpg. This objective must be reached by a combination of technical and fiscal measures, and consumer information. This should be legally binding with sanctions for non-compliance and incentives to go beyond targets.
The EU and its member states claim to take a science-based approach toward policy making. Last week we got the most recent science on climate change. I wonder if we will see it reflected in what is announced tomorrow.