German carmakers fail the green test
GENEVA: Europe prides itself on its pioneering approach to climate change — a commitment that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany aims to deepen in her term as president of the European Union.
There is just one problem: Her country — home of the autobahn and the Porsche sports cars that tear along it — is among the worst offenders in Europe in terms of passenger cars that spew carbon dioxide into the air.
To persuade Europe to accept stringent new cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, as Merkel plans to do at a European Union summit meeting in Brussels this week, she must face down the German auto industry, which has, until now, done little to make its cars more climate-friendly.
German auto executives concede they will have to do more, especially since passenger-car emissions account for 12 percent of total European emissions, and are rising rather than falling, unlike overall greenhouse gases in the Continent. But the industry's reluctance to embrace fully the fears about climate change was palpable at the Geneva International Motor Show this week.
"We are at the moment in a hype phase, or you can say, a hysterical phase, and we have to wait until the smoke is gone," said Norbert Reithofer, the chief executive of BMW, during an interview. "When we have all the facts on the table, we can have a realistic view about the future."
Skepticism aside, Reithofer said BMW was already equipping its cars with new technology that makes their engines burn less fuel and emit fewer gases. People, he said, would be surprised by the reduction in emissions that BMW will achieve by the end of next year.
Still, BMW, and its rivals Mercedes- Benz, Porsche, and Audi, will fall well short of the reductions they and other European manufacturers pledged to reach on a voluntary basis, from 1998 to 2008.
Stung by this failure, the European Commission recently proposed making those cuts mandatory by 2012. Under its plan, new cars could emit no more than 120 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, or 192 grams per mile. In 2004, average emissions were 163 grams per kilometer.
"They had a long time to comply, and they didn't do it," said Stephan Singer, the head of the European Climate and Energy Unit at the WWF in Brussels. "It tells us that voluntary agreements don't work."
Not all European carmakers are climate offenders. Fiat of Italy, which reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by about a third since 1997, is not far above the 120-gram target. The French carmakers Renault and Citroën, which emphasize smaller cars, are also within striking distance.
And the Germans do make some climate-friendly cars: DaimlerChrysler showed off its new Smart mini-car here, which falls under the emissions cap, while BMW's diesel L series, a subcompact, comes close.
The trouble is, the German auto industry derives most of its profits, not to mention its global renown, from its speedy, high-performance cars. Unlike Toyota, which has turned hybrid vehicles like the Prius into a calling card, German carmakers emphasize engineering brawn.
In Geneva, for example, Audi thrilled enthusiasts with its new R8, a two-seater that has more in common with a race car than with other Audis. Across the hall, visitors mobbed Porsche's sports cars.
"The top speed of an average new car made by BMW, Mercedes and Audi is 235 kilometers per hour," or 146 miles per hour, said Werner Reh, head of the transport department at BUND, a German environmental group. "If you build racing cars, you can't really reduce consumption."
Environmentalists argue that the simplest way to cut emissions would be to impose a speed limit of 120 kilometers, or 75 miles, per hour on the autobahn. Germany is the only European country that permits drivers to go as fast as their cars, or their nerves, will let them — though on limited stretches.
Yet few German politicians, even Merkel, have come out in favor of a speed limit. To Germans, newspapers say, a no-limit autobahn is like pasta to an Italian or a baguette to a Frenchman.
Some German auto executives predict dire consequences if the new limits become law. A strict emissions cap of 120 grams, some note, would rule out most of the models that BMW, Mercedes and Audi now produce — to say nothing of Porsche, the biggest emitter.
That would have untold consequences for an industry that is one of Germany's largest employers.
They also argue it is unfair to penalize companies whose high-end cars may emit fewer gases, in the aggregate, than small cars.
"A Lamborghini is driven maybe 3,000 kilometers a year, while a Volkswagen Polo might be driven 30,000 kilometers a year, generating more carbon," said Rupert Stadler, the chief executive of Audi, which, like the sports car maker Lamborghini, is owned by Volkswagen.
In fact, the European Commission is likely to impose the limits on an average basis for Europe's entire fleet of new cars. Under such a plan, Lamborghini could keep selling high-emitting cars, as long as Fiat sold enough low emitters to bring Europe's average under the limit.
To achieve that, experts say, Europe could institute a trading system like that used to limit emissions by power plants and chemical factories. Porsche, for example, could buy emissions points from a low emitter like Fiat, and pass them along to its customers in the form of a higher sticker price.
The German car industry managed to extract a compromise from Brussels. Automakers will be required to get emissions down to 130 grams through new technology. The commission said they could make up the remaining 10 grams, to reach the 120-gram goal, through other efficiency measures, like the greater use of biofuels.
At the Brussels summit meeting this week, experts said Merkel was unlikely to focus on cars, instead pushing countries to accept a broader target of reducing carbon emissions by 20 percent from their 1990 levels by 2020.
For their part, German auto executives are planning to live with lower emissions, even if some say the debate is overheated.
In Geneva, the companies promoted new technologies that will make their cars more efficient. DaimlerChrysler is pushing a new generation of clean diesel engines, which it calls Bluetec. European carmakers continue to emphasize diesel over hybrid gasoline- and-electric engines.
BMW uses the phrase "efficient dynamics" to refer to innovations like Auto Start/Stop, which shuts down a car's engine when it comes to a stop — for example, in a traffic jam or at a light. As soon as the driver pushes on the clutch or the gas pedal, the engine restarts.
"I don't see BMW as a green company," Reithofer said. "I see BMW as a very innovative company."