Green motoring in bloom

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Lean, green commuting machines will be the new black for Belgian fleet car managers this year.

29 January 2010

“Go, greased lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile. Greased lightning, go greased lightning […] You are supreme, uh ah, the chicks’ll cream, uh ah, for greased lightning.”

It’s hard to forget this iconic song from the movie Grease. For a few too many of us, this era of gas-guzzling sports cars still resonates. But with an environmental crisis looming and an economic one still in play, the fast and flash cars that used to turn heads in admiration could soon turn them downward in shame.

Every day, a growing number of the 5 million cars in Belgium crawls into Brussels – most of them still running on fossil fuels. It’s a daily ritual repeated in cities across the European Union – so it’s no surprise that around 12% of EU carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be traced back to cars.

The world’s leaders are not blind to this environmental failure. They responded more than a decade ago with the Kyoto Protocol to pressure nations into cutting greenhouse gas emissions, largely blamed for global warming and climate change problems. A raft of national and EU regulations targeting industrial and transport-related pollution then followed.

Despite the lacklustre outcome at the Copenhagen Summit (COP15) in December, the trend towards greener life decisions will continue to gather momentum. More fuel-efficient petrol cars will gradually yield to hybrid electric-petrol cars which will probably be overtaken by next-generation electric cars once the scientists perfect the battery technology and better infrastructure is in place for recharging.

Change you can feel

Belgium is also joining the green car chorus with surprising gusto. For instance, if you drive a low CO2 emitting car, the banking and insurance group Ethias will give you a 10% reduction on the premium. And the Belgian government will pat you on the back as well. As from 1 January this year, it is offering tax concession on personal use of company cars which emit less carbon dioxide (see box).

“We are in favour of modifying the existing fiscal system for business car use,” says Danny Smagghe, spokesperson for Belgium’s automobile club Touring, “providing it doesn’t cost drivers more!”

Touring makes no distinction between hybrids and ordinary vehicles in its service offering, Smagghe says. Its breakdown crews are already well-trained to deal with what he calls “cars of the future”.

Positive signs of change all round, then? Well, not exactly.

It’s a fair bet that diesel fans and petrol-heads would rather have an amputation than be seen driving an electric car, which to them has more in common with a sewing machine than a racing machine. But the way the GPS is heading, these diehards are going to be driven off the road by a combination of spiralling costs and onerous regulation.

So, could hybrids offer a gentle introduction to greener motoring for these holdouts? Hybrids could cruise the highways using their combustion engine and buzz along the byways on electric power.

Prius and proud

It also helps that the hybrid technology is now proven and well-respected. Toyota’s Prius is the hybrid market leader worldwide, but Honda’s Insight will quickly gain ground. European and US carmakers are having to play catch-up, as another Japanese manufacturer Nissan is preparing its 2010 European launch of the zero-emission, fully electric Leaf. Unlike its electric forefathers, the Leaf has power and stamina enough for commuting and longer excursions.

Hybrid owners show consistent loyalty to the technology. Nearly one in three Prius owners buys another one, according to US analysts R.L. Polk & Company. On average, one in five hybrid owners buys the same model again.

Hybrids buck other trends, too. Forecasts by Polk before the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 indicated continued growth in hybrid sales – clearly helped by higher fuel costs and environmental pressures around the world. Western Europe, the study suggests, will see significant sales growth, from less than 1% market share in 2008 up to 5% in 2012.

“You have a lot more environmental and political discussions throughout the EU and a much higher sensitivity [about] CO2 emissions,” notes Lonnie Miller, director of automotive studies at Polk, in an interview on HybridCars.com.

Petrol today, electric tomorrow… where to from there?

In response to demand and with some coaxing by EU laws, carmakers are building more efficient, lower emission vehicles. European motorists are also improving as awareness grows about such things as car-pooling and the links between driving habits and higher emissions.

Meanwhile, scientists are continuing to dream up new fuels, novel energy sources and more efficient engines, in many cases with the help of generous national and EU research funding.

But what happens if these innovations have their own unwanted side-effects?

Battery-powered cars seem like the dream-driving scenario today but soon enough we may discover producing electricity to keep all these vehicles charged could be worse for the environment. Just as questions are being asked today why we are diverting land and water away from food crops to produce ethanol.

(That so many of the world’s population is undernourished and huge tracts of carbon-absorbing rain forest are being cleared to grow such biofuel crops appears to be a secondary matter.)

Where is the logic in all this?

These are pretty big questions and this is a pretty small story about trends in green motoring. All we know for sure is that “grease lightening” is dying, if not dead – and in their love affair with the oil producers, the world’s major carmakers have ignored this truth at their peril.

However, under pressure to remain competitive and to stanch the bankruptcies, the carmakers’ new business mantra will surely be “change we finally believe in”. The sort of change that will drive investment in cleaner fuel sources like hydrogen, new engine designs, and perhaps a whole new way of thinking about the transport mix.

There’s no green bullet to fix the environment and keep economies ticking over at the same time. The reality in Belgium and other densely populated European countries will remain one of traffic jams, noise and plumes of fumes spewing from exhaust pipes for some time to come.

But as the Australian folk singer Paul Kelly once wrote, “from little things big things grow”.

Greening up the commute

The Belgian government has changed the way it calculates tax on company vehicle use away from engine size in favour of cars with lower CO2 emissions.

The new coefficient is based on:

  • 0 .00210 euro per gram of CO2 for petrol, LPG and natural gas-fuelled cars
  • 0.00230 euro per gram of CO2 for diesel cars

So, the tax on a diesel car with CO2 emissions of 129grams/km travelling 20km to work each day would come to 1,484 euros per year (129 x 0.00230 x 5000).

The incentive: the more fuel efficient the vehicle, the greater the tax benefit.

EcoTest your next car

The good news is cars in Europe are getting cleaner, according to EcoTest‘s latest results. Over half of the 900 vehicles tested[1] scored 4 out of 5 stars for low emissions and pollutant levels, up from only 14 percent six years ago. But there is still room for improvement as only three models – the VW Passat TSI 1.4 Ecofuel, Toyota 1.8 Hybrid and Honda Insight – have so far earned a 5-star rating. EcoTest warns consumers not to be duped by branding – having “eco” in the model name does not always mean it’s environmentally friendly!


[1] by German Automobile Club (ADAC) and the International Auto Federation (FIA)

This article first appeared in (A)way magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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