Sustainability challenges in auto sector annual report

The fourth annual sustainability report of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reveals a mixed performance on environmental trends.1 It also shows the sector beginning to examine the difficult challenges of sustainable mobility.

According to the SMMT, its fourth report presents "good news on all fronts." Indeed, 2002 was a good year commercially for the UK motor industry. Of the five biggest car markets in Europe, it was the only one to show increased sales of new cars.Sales reached record levels, exceeding 2.5 million - helped by a reported 10% drop in new car prices in the UK over the past four years.

Manufacturing volumes in the UK also increased for the first time since 1999, reaching 1.82 million new cars and commercial vehicles. The 24 signatories to the SMMT sustainability report accounted for 77% of the total.

The SMMT reports six new signatories to its report this year, including Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, SEAT and Skoda. The total has more than doubled since the organisation's first sustainability report in 1999.

The SMMT is still struggling with the commercial sensitivities of its signatories. It publishes only aggregated data, and where it does give specific examples of achievements these are not attributed.

The amount of quantitative operational environmental data in the report has progressively increased, although it remains devoid of any performance improvement targets.

Combined energy consumption by the report's signatories was 6,681GWh, a 3% reduction on the previous year. However, it is unclear how much of this was affected by the closure of two major manufacturing facilities over that period.

The SMMT points out that only 12 of the 18 signatories who also reported in 2001 contributed to the reduction, but it does not say which. The report cites a few examples of companies which have apparently managed to decouple energy consumption from production increases.

The normalised data paint a different picture. Energy and water consumption per vehicle produced were both lower than in the previous year, but higher than the baseline of 1999. Similarly, CO2 equivalent and VOC emissions per vehicle produced have dropped year on year, but are higher now than in 1999.

In terms of the environmental profile of its product, the SMMT reported earlier this year that average CO2 emissions from new cars had dropped to 174.2g/km - a 6% improvement on the 1999 figure (ENDS Report 340, pp 13-14 ). The industry is party to a sectoral agreement with the European Commission to reduce this figure to 140g/km by 2008. Much of the reduction in average emissions can be attributed to incentives provided by the new CO2 emission-graded vehicle excise duty regime.

The rising popularity of diesel vehicles is also a major factor. The SMMT confirms that "2002 was the year of diesel growth" - new car registrations increased by 38%, resulting in a market share of 23.5%. This is considerably below the average European diesel penetration of 40.9%, pointing to further room for growth.

In parallel to its reporting, the SMMT also initiated a stakeholder dialogue process in 2000 involving government, regulators, NGOs, employees, investors and customers in talks with the industry. Two recommendations to emerge from this process were for the sector to promote responsible product use and begin tackling the wider issues of sustainable mobility.

The SMMT published a consumer "guide to more responsible motoring" in November. It has also issued a discussion paper on sustainable mobility which includes a mixture of "soft" and "hard" indicators on congestion, emissions, energy efficiency, renewable energy use and end-of-life vehicle recovery alongside those on household access to cars, safety and security.

In a foreword to the report, SMMT chief executive Christopher Macgowan admits that "conflicts in aspiration sometimes prevail" in trying to meet the many expectations of stakeholders. Environmental and safety demands, he said, would have to be balanced with the industry's need to remain globally competitive.

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