Journalist Neil Winton believes Europe’s car makers are playing a dangerous game with the emerging environmental movement and asks – Will Europe’s car makers wake up in time, tone down the go-faster rhetoric, and make sure CO2 emissions are cut to a level it can live with, before the politicians mandate levels that will threaten its existence?

The European Commission has threatened to mandate average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for cars of 120 grams per kilometre by 2012, the European Auto industry is not going to meet its voluntary target of 140 g/km by 2008, and yet at the Paris Car Show, top executives seemed blissfully unaware of the political firestorm about to engulf them as they glibly talked up the macho aspects of even their most mundane new cars.

The European media in general and British TV and Radio in particular believe that humans are warming the climate and that we will all die unless we curb emissions of CO2 by foreswearing our beloved cars, among other things. Britain’s state-owned broadcaster, the BBC, is so convinced that global warming is happening and that humans are guilty, it rarely allows the case against to be heard.

And European politicians can’t resist the urge to save us from ourselves. Even Britain’s new opposition Conservative party leader David Cameron is calling for taxes on activities which he says harm the environment.

With the public being bombarded with the idea that CO2 must be curbed if the world is to be saved, it was a bit of a surprise to observe the car manufacturers at the Paris Car Show operating in a parallel universe.

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Carl-Peter Forster, President of GM Europe, opened the manufacturers press programme at the show on September 28 with a typical presentation. GM Europe’s Opels, Vauxhalls, Saabs, Hummers and Cadillacs were more powerful, faster, rugged, thrilling, and sexy than the competition. A little souped up Chevrolet was shown on video racing around a track and was described as “aggressive, muscular and dramatic”. Admittedly, towards the end a Saab with a bio-power engine was mentioned, but the GM presentation was typical of what seems like an industry in denial.

Sure, there were token offerings like the little Peugeot 207 Epure, powered by a CO2 emission-free fuel cell which might be available some years down the line. But not much else.

GM Europe’s Forster believed that consumers were not, yet, despite the media coverage, prepared to buy cars which were environmentally friendly, unless they also were inexpensive and value for money.

“The customer is a funny animal; they don’t always behave like they should, and don’t always follow the media and politicians. If the car is too expensive, people won’t buy, it must be affordable” Forster told journalists during a roundtable discussion held on the eve of the Paris Show.

A Brussels based lobby organisation, the European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) is angry at what it considers to be an unjustified and toothless regulatory regime for European car makers. 

“The industry has failed to meet its targets, and won’t meet the 2008 voluntary agreement. The EU must regulate to ensure that the climate goals are met. There should be penalties for failure to comply,” said Dudley Curtis, T&E spokesman. Curtis said even an average of 120 g/km was not low enough. T&E wanted emissions cut to 100 g/km, then 80 g/km, but he didn’t say when.

Will Europe’s car makers wake up in time, tone down the go-faster rhetoric, and make sure CO2 emissions are cut to a level it can live with, before the politicians mandate levels that will threaten its existence?

Neil Winton

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More forthright views from Neil Winton are to be found at Winton’s World.