By Jay Nagley, of Redspy Automotive
Germany is pouring more money than any other country into producing green energy: quite a task for a country with little coastline for offshore turbines, not much wind and not a huge amount of sunshine.
The problem is that vast subsidies to green energy mean that the only other power source that is economically viable is cheap and dirty coal. Thus, the more green energy Germany produces, the more coal it burns – and its total CO2 output is stubbornly refusing to drop.
Now it seems the German car industry has persuaded the EU to follow the same path. The latest agreement for an EU-wide CO2 target of 95g/km by 2020 includes so-called “super credits” for electric and hybrid vehicles that are measured at less than 50g/km of CO2 (at the insistence of the German industry).
Each one of these vehicles will count double when measuring the average CO2 figure for each manufacturer. Hence, if BMW makes 10,000 cars measured at 49g/km of CO2, it can sell twice as many cars emitting 150g/km of CO2 and still meet its target. So, the more electric cars sold, the higher the average CO2 figures will be.
The justification for this is that it will encourage sales of electric vehicles, which in the long run, will help the environment. However, everyone in the industry expects petrol and diesel to take the majority of sales for at least the next 20 years, so any benefit from electric cars is going to be a long time coming. There is also the inconvenient truth that most electric cars in Europe use electricity from fossil fuel (conveniently ignored in the CO2 tests).
In the UK, an electric car like a Nissan Leaf produces around 75g/km of CO2. Only in nuclear-powered France is the figure seriously low (under 20g/km). If Germany completes its move to green energy, it will also be low, but that is looking ever less likely as consumers are objecting to rocketing bills. The CO2 figure of an electric car powered by German coal does not bear thinking about: German so-called “brown coal” is one of the dirtiest fuel sources known to man. A shiny new electric BMW i3 using brown-coal-derived electricity would be way worse for CO2 than a conventional BMW 320d.
This points up the fundamental problem of current official attempts to reduce the CO2 figures from cars: the figures given for CO2 outputs are so ludicrously unreliable that the average consumer might as well guess what is the real CO2 output of their car. The basic reason is that the rules have been designed to allow manufacturers to make absurd claims, rather than to measure actual fuel consumption. Carmakers can fit non-standard oils, non-standard tyres (which can be seriously over-inflated to cut rolling resistance), disconnect the alternator, and even tape up panel gaps to reduce rolling resistance. So, the car you buy has little in common with the car tested by the EU.
When it comes to plug-in hybrids, any residual connection between the real world and the EU test cycle is lost – and it is those plug-in hybrids that will enable car manufacturers to sell more high-polluting vehicles. The test is based on two identical cycles, one of which is performed with a full battery. With a full battery, the engine never fires up, so the CO2 figure is zero, according to the bureaucrats.
Thus, both Toyota and Volvo legitimately report a CO2 figure for their plug-in hybrids of under 50g/km (49g/km and 48g/km respectively). Given that the electricity contained in the battery has a CO2 figure of 75g/km in the UK, that implies their engines have a negative CO2 figure.
It should be stressed that the manufacturers have done nothing wrong – every plug-in hybrid sold in Europe will have its CO2 figure calculated in the same way. If the rule of thumb for conventional cars is to add 25% to the official test figures, the equivalent for a plug-in hybrid would be to double the official figure. An official figure which is half the realistic figure is not merely useless – it is actively encouraging people to make wrong choices.
It is ironic that the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Audi had misused the official test figures in its advertising. The ASA said Audi should have made it clear to customers that the official test cycle “was not necessarily representative of what they would achieve when driving the car themselves.” So, officially it is not acceptable for Audi to quote from a misleading test, but it is quite OK for the test itself to be misleading.