Consumer choice offers best short-term solution for new car emissions

The greatest potential to cut carbon emissions from new cars in the short term lies in urging consumers to buy the greenest car in its class, the Energy Saving Trust believes. Meanwhile, carmakers are improving their shaky record on advertising low-carbon cars.

Carbon emissions from new cars could be reduced by up to 25% in the short to medium term using existing technology, research by the Energy Saving Trust has concluded.

Big cuts could be achieved by increasing the amount of independent advice available to consumers when buying a car, the Trust believes. Its survey of more than 1,500 drivers revealed 74% of drivers have no idea how much carbon dioxide their car emits.

This is despite 89% of people claiming to want environmental information brought to their attention when buying a car. The Trust calculated that if everyone who buys a new car chooses the greenest car in its class (see table) they could save £375 a year in fuel costs. They would also make savings in reduced vehicle excise duty.

The Trust slammed this as an example of market failure. "There is no good reason why people are continuing to buy inefficient cars at a time of rising fuel prices and higher vehicle excuse duties for higher CO2 vehicles," said Trust chief executive Philip Sellwood.

Showrooms have displayed new car tax bands, carbon emissions and fuel efficiencies on labels since 2005. A Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) survey found that over 90% of dealerships were complying with this voluntary scheme. But its research found buyers had difficulty understanding CO2 information without comparisons to other vehicles in their class.

This should already be possible as car dealerships are also supposed to display a poster detailing the CO2 emissions and fuel efficiency of all cars under the EU labelling Directive. But compliance with this is poor due to problems keeping it up to date. As part of the EU’s consultation on revising the Directive, several groups have suggested car dealers should provide online access to such information in showrooms.

The Trust thinks that focusing on information will be more effective at cutting emissions than simply relying on technological advances such as hybrid drives or a switch to diesel engines.

Emissions from new cars have decreased in recent years due to a boost in sales of diesel vehicles and a decline in those of petrol vehicles. But the Trust thinks this trend is unlikely to continue. Diesel engines are now being used more in high-performance vehicles, resulting in an actual increase in CO2 emissions from new diesel cars since 2002, it found.

New technologies such as hybrid and electric vehicles are still a long way from mass market penetration due to performance and costs, the Trust believes. "We are not telling everybody to go out and buy a hybrid or electric car, but we are urging motorists to buy the greenest car in its class," Mr Sellwood added.

Carmakers should also improve the quality and desirability of traditionally fuelled low-CO2 models to increase sales, the Trust said. The car industry has long been criticised for marketing the higher-carbon vehicles within a range as better quality, more expensive, faster and more desirable.

Research by Friends of the Earth last year found over half of adverts were for vehicles in the more polluting excise duty bands E-G - those that emit more than 165g/km CO2. This remained unchanged from two years previously (ENDS Report 387, p 11 ).

However, the Trust noted that carmakers are starting to place CO2 information more prominently in advertising. This is backed up by a survey of national newspaper advertisements by the LowCVP, which found that the proportion of advertising spend on the most efficient vehicles - those in bands A-C - doubled to 40% in 2007.

Advertising expenditure on less-efficient cars in bands E and F fell by half. Money spent on promoting the most inefficient band G vehicles remained the same, at around 20% of the total. The survey also found that 12% of advertising messages now relate to fuel consumption and/or the climate change impact of cars.

At the same time, consumer demand for low-carbon cars is rising. Ford reported a 38% rise in sales of cars which emit less than 120g/km CO2 in the first six months of this year compared with the same period in 2007. Citro€n reported an "extraordinary run" on its C1 model, with sales this year boosted by high fuel prices.

But online advertising continues to be biased towards high-emitting vehicles, with 52% of expenditure going to vehicles in bands E-G. 4x4s received 20% of expenditure, a figure out of proportion with the vehicles’ market sales share of 7%.

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