In praise of regulation

15th May 2012


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As the UK automotive sector congratulates itself on cutting CO2 emissions, Paul Suff argues the real praise should go to regultors

Emissions from new cars purchased last year in the UK averaged 138.1g of carbon per km – a 27% reduction since 1997. Good news for the environment, certainly, and confirmation that emissions from cars are heading in the right direction.

Whom do we have to thank for falling emissions? The Society of Motor Manufacturers (SMMT), the voice of the UK car industry, gives automotive companies a big pat on the back for the improving environmental performance of vehicles.

“Industry can be proud of the progress it has made in reducing CO2 emissions,” said its chief executive, Paul Everitt. You could be forgiven for thinking that he is not referring to the same industry that failed to achieve its voluntary commitment to reduce carbon discharges from new vehicles to an average of 140g CO2/km by 2008 and which lobbied hard against legally-binding EU targets to cut emissions.

Yes, automotive manufacturers have reduced average emissions from their fleets, but only under pain of financial penalty if they did not. The main reason emissions from vehicles are being driven down is European Commission legislation, agreed in 2008.

It requires emissions from 65% of car makers’ fleets to average 130g CO2/km this year – 120g CO2/km when other improvements, such as better tyres are factored in – rising to 100% from 2015. Manufacturers that fail to achieve the standard are fined, on a rising scale, for every gram they overshoot the target.

That has got automotive manufacturers moving; hence the 7.7% fall in emissions from new UK cars between 2009 and 2011. Driving down emissions from new cars has been accelerated further in the UK by changes to vehicle excise duty and the rules governing company cars, which now favour “greener” models.

Falling emissions from cars are evidence that regulation can work where voluntary efforts fail. Similar EU regulation will be phased in for light commercial vehicles from 2014.

And, looking at the latest UK figures, new vans in 2011 emit an average of 199.2g CO2/km, significantly higher than in 2000 – it can’t come soon enough.

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