Monday, October 15, 2012

Kicking the car industry out of the driving seat

Imagine a band of brigands so depraved, it steals food from the poor and gives it to the better-off. Imagine that the band has been condemned by all kinds of "respectable" organisations but waits for several years before making any amends.

The European Commission is that band of brigands. Since 2007, the EU executive has been committed to ensuring that biofuels power 10% of all road journeys in the Union by 2020. The Commission has stuck by that target, even as the World Bank and World Food Programme amassed evidence that the use of agricultural crops to fill petrol tanks was exacerbating global hunger.

It is only now that the goal is finally being revised. Over the coming days, the Commission will formally announce plans that the proportion of road journeys fuelled by food crops should be no higher than 5%. The Wall Street Journal has described this as a "radical change" of policy. That is nonsense. Far from being radical, it is a belated and inadequate gesture.

A truly radical change of policy would involve ditching the clique of advisers which advocated that the disastrous 10% objective be set in the first place. Yet a look at a related initiative - known as CARS 21 - shows that the Commission is still relying on the same clique.

CARS 21 is a "high level group" originally assembled by G√ľnter Verheugen, then the EU's enterprise commissioner, in 2005. Dominated by corporations, it pushed for the greater use of biofuels from an early stage, arguing that they offered much potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Two years ago, the group was relaunched by Verheugen's successor Antonio Tajani. He is currently putting the final touches to an "action plan" guided by its recommendations. Almost certainly, the plan will accord a higher priority to the narrow desires of vehicle makers than to the future of the planet. The group has advocated, for example, that the EU should take a more bellicose line towards "emerging economies". Regulations perceived as hostile to Europe's vehicle-makers should be scrapped as a result of any new free trade agreements that the EU signs, the group has argued. It also wants African and Asian countries to be told that their natural resources must be placed at the disposal of major corporations. Heaven forbid that the resources could benefit anyone else.

Flexible pollution

Examining recent comments from Europe's car manufacturers, one could be forgiven for thinking they are in danger of extinction. Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat, moaned earlier this year about "how very few companies make any money in Europe". To help out these metal bashers (his description), Marchionne urged a "flexibility pact", which would give car firms greater leeway in "meeting regulatory deadlines in troublesome times".

Just how much flexibility do these guys want? In July, the European Commission issued proposals to limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) pumped into the atmosphere by the average car to 95 grams per kilometre by 2020. (The average level for 2011 was 135.7g/km).

Whenever pollution threshholds have been suggested in the past, car-makers have held out against them, constantly warning that jobs will be lost if industry is pushed too hard. In early 2006, DaimlerChrysler reacted with horror when it emerged that EU officials were considering a mandatory limit of 120 g/km. Erich Klemm, then the company's boss, predicted he would have to lay off 65,000 workers in Germany as luxury cars would no longer be viable. His scarmongering worked: the Commission came forward with less ambitious targets.

Was Daimler punished for this act of sabotage? Far from it. Dieter Zetsche, Daimler's present chief executive, was invited to join the revamped CARS 21 group.

It is too late for flexibility. Unlike most other sectors of the economy, the car industry is increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, not reducing them. Overall, CO2 emissions from road transport rose by 36% between 1990 and 2007. Cars account for 14% of all the EU's emissions.

Reclaiming our cities

And exhaust pipes release a lot more than CO2. In September, the European Environment Agency published a study concluding that 81% of the EU's urban population is exposed to levels of particulate matter higher than air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. Chronic exposure to particulate matter can contribute to heart and respiratory problems and lung cancer.

Instead of a plan to save the car industry, we need one to reduce its influence dramatically. Cities that have sizeable pedestrian or car-free zones are a lot more convivial than gridlocked ones. Why can't we have a plan for an EU-wide network of car-free cities? Or why can't a group of progressive mayors get together and collectively introduce congestion charges?

Cutting car use should not necessitate large-scale job losses. There is no divine law saying that BMW can't be transformed into a tram or bicycle firm. Realising that vision would require confronting powerful vested interests head-on and the likelihood of the European Commission doing so is miniscule. That's why a mass movement to reclaim our towns and cities is needed.

Darrin Nordahl's book Making Transit Fun! argues for a new approach to urban planning with the aim of putting some joy into public transport. He sings the praises of a planned San Francisco station that "drips with sex appeal". Fruit-shaped bus shelters in Japan are another fave. All these ideas could prove infectious and help to kick the car industry out of the driving seat.

●First published by New Europe, 14-20 October 2012


  1. Dave, don't worry about the planet. As George Carlin told, the planet is doing just fine. It's man who isn't and in his resourceful stupidity will never do. The planet will be here long after mankind destroys itself.

    The only danger to the planet could be some cosmic cataclysmic event which we couldn't prevent from happening anyway.

    And again, as George Carlin told, maybe the nature created man, because nature needs plastic and it doesn't know to make it, so man is here to do it. :-)

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