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Comment: Riding the 'green wave'

Comment: Riding the 'green wave'

Despite the current economic climate, it's time for some self-congratulation. With recent figures showing that average new car CO2 emissions fell by 5.5% in the first nine months of 2009, the current rate of reduction is now almost five times faster than it was only two years ago. It seems that the penny has finally dropped, and we are finally getting to grips with carbon emissions.

More than that, official figures released from the UK Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills show that the car scrappage scheme, hailed as saviour by the industry but initially criticised by environmentalists, has played its own important role in driving down emissions. New cars bought under the scheme are turning out to have CO2 emissions that are 27% lower than the cars scrapped.* Talk about riding a 'green wave', surfing doesn't get much better than this.

Of course, we all know that it's precisely because of the difficult economic times we find ourselves in, that new car CO2 has taken a tumble. First came the fuel price peaks of 2008 - in those distant heady days when oil was $140 a barrel - and then came the 'crunch'. In the new world order, just getting your hands on a new car, and keeping it on the road, is a major accomplishment. No wonder then that UK drivers are wising up to the benefits of owning a small fuel-efficient car, and (inadvertently in most cases) cutting their CO2 emissions.

While this wave has still got some forward momentum, perhaps now is a good time to take a 'bottom turn', and get consumers, fleet managers and the industry in the best position for the next manoeuvre. It's also time to review our progress so far and re-visit some of the issues we haven't had time to address while we've been avoiding a catastrophic wipe-out.

For a start, are we clear about how the end of the recession (when it comes) will impact on new car CO2 emissions? Will a return of credit and disposable income, and therefore larger cars, undo all the recent gains? With the end of the scrappage scheme and an increase in VAT in sight, a new set of policy drivers is heading our way – including the 'First Year' VED rates for new cars due in April 2010. How, we should be asking ourselves, will the change in policy environment affect the forward progress on CO2? One possible response (I would argue) is to look again at purchase incentives for low-carbon new cars – one that could take over from the scrappage scheme when it ends next year.

There's also the thorny question of the CO2 emissions metric itself. While the 'New European Drive Cycle' has played a crucial role in motivating and monitoring CO2 reductions of new cars across the EU, it is now almost a decade old. The inexorable increase in engine power and its impact of 'real-world' (as opposed to test) emissions is well documented. The advent of new engine technologies such as plug-in hybrids, is also stretching the capability of the NEDC to adequately compare models' CO2 performance. If we want to be sure that this year's 5.5% fall in test emissions has actually resulted in a real-world cut in carbon, it's time put the NEDC to the test, and compare it with alternatives (such as ARTEMIS) that are gaining much interest from policy makers across the EU.

While the 'green wave' of 2009 will be remembered for years to come, it's now time to 'wax-up' and head out to the break to catch the next one...

©Dr Ben Lane, WhatGreenCar.com
Article also appears in November's edition of GreenFleet Magazine
*Updated 11/12/09

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