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Newsletter 16th February 2007

- Europen car emission standards - A step backwards for nuclear power? - Green crimes - Criticism of the Scientific Alliance

European car emission standards
There has been much wrangling in Brussels over proposed new targets for reduction of CO2 emissions. The net result is a proposal to set a binding goal of 130g CO2/km as the average for all new cars sold by 2012. This is higher than the figure of 120g CO2/km proposed by the environment commissioner and, as such, represents a partial success for the industrial lobby. Interestingly, car manufacturers have received strong support from Angela Merkel, putting national interests before her stated commitment to carbon reduction targets. The problem for Germany is that it not only has the largest car manufacturing sector in Europe, but German carmakers are biased towards the upper end of the market, making larger, more powerful cars. This is in contrast to the situation in Italy and France.
 
Significant progress has, in fact, been made in making new cars more efficient. In 2004, the average new European new car emitted 161g CO2/km, down 13% from 1995 levels. But this is not considered good enough and, in particular, it does not meet the industry’s own voluntary target of 140 g CO2/km. However, the issue is more complex than it first seems. Engines have become far more efficient over the past couple of decades. The average family car today is both more powerful and more fuel-efficient than its equivalent of a generation ago. However, it is also larger and heavier, due in no small part to the extra passive safety features mandated by the EU. Passenger protection is undoubtedly a good thing, but it carries a fuel consumption penalty.
 
Another issue is that of diesel versus petrol. Diesel engines are significantly more fuel-efficient, and have been popular in many continental European countries for many years, to a large extent because these countries also make diesel fuel less expensive than petrol at the pump. The results can be seen by comparing the UK with the rest of Europe. On this side of the channel, the large majority of private cars has traditionally used petrol engines. The result is that UK car emissions figures are somewhat higher than the average, but this gap is narrowing as the newer generation of diesel engines makes their use more popular.
 
But the last and perhaps most important factor is that making fuel-efficient cars is one thing, selling them another. An increasingly affluent population has chosen to buy more powerful and prestigious cars, which were once comparatively uncommon. Charting the success of BMW is a pretty good indicator of this trend. So, governments can set targets, and car manufacturers can continue to innovate and produce ever more frugal engines., but will consumers buy them? The existing financial incentive of reduced road tax is symbolic rather than real. Anyone who can afford to buy a larger car and carry the associated higher fuel, insurance and maintenance costs is unlikely to be swayed by an extra £50 or so for a tax disc.
 
Without quotas or rationing, which are surely not acceptable in peacetime, people will exercise their free will, whatever standards are mandated. Any attempt to force quotas on the European motor industry will have the effect of increasing imports from international competitors, only too willing to provide what customers want.
 
A step backwards for nuclear power?
In a decision which seemed to take even the instigators of the judicial review, Greenpeace, by surprise, a High Court judge on Thursday ruled that the government’s public consultation on building new nuclear power stations was “misleading”, “seriously flawed” and “unfair”. The government is embarrassed; the DTI says – correctly – that this is about procedure rather than the technology itself, and more consultation will soon be underway.
 
Part of the problem is that nuclear, having been effectively sidelined in the 2003 White Paper, was back in favour within three years, with the publication of The Energy Challenge in July 2006. It was the consultation prior to this which was the subject of the judicial review.
 
Of course, if consultation is to be meaningful, it should be done properly, but all too often the process is just a way for vested interest groups from both ends of the spectrum to rehearse their standard arguments. Although these will be taken into account, a decision such as this is of such strategic importance for the UK’s future energy security that they will almost certainly have little effect on the outcome. And when it comes to the planning stage, opposition will again come largely from national pressure groups. People living in the vicinity of existing nuclear power stations – which are the sites which would accommodate new ones – are, on the whole, more positive towards them than the rest of the population.
 
The two key criticisms of the consultation related to disposal of nuclear waste, and the economics of running the stations. CoRWM (the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management) issued a comprehensive report last year, recommending deep burial of existing waste, and this conclusion now seems to be generally accepted, albeit reluctantly by some. Given that the next generation of reactors should produce much smaller volumes of waste, this aspect seems to be reasonably well addressed.
 
Economics is a different matter. The government has said that new stations would have to be privately financed, which is a risky business unless there is some certainty about the price to be paid for electricity. Given the significant subsidies available for other low-carbon power generation technologies, it is likely that a sensible solution can be arrived at, particularly as wind, solar, tidal or wave energy cannot provide the necessary base load which nuclear can.
 
Green crimes
The European Commission has recently proposed that a wide range of environmental offences should fall under EU legal jurisdiction, with standardised penalties in all member states. The Commission argues that dumping of waste, trading in endangered species and similar crimes cannot be adequately dealt with at national level. Others fear that this would set a precedent for Brussels to take on more responsibility for criminal law. How this will eventually work out is anyone’s guess, but the fact that the environment has been chosen as the battleground shows the high priority this takes in European eyes.
 
Criticism of the Scientific Alliance
This newsletter goes to a wide range or readers, including a significant number of journalists. One of them – Anjana Ahuja of the Times – chose to write a very critical article (see Read this before deleting: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/anjana_ahuja/article...). Now, she is entitled to her own opinions but, to us, such an ad hominem attack does not belong on the science pages. To compound this, the Times has, to date, not published letters sent in response.
 
Readers will form their own opinion of this piece. To us, it reinforces the need for organisations such as ours which try to encourage proper debate and argument rather than indulge in the regrettable but fashionable approach of mud-slinging.