Tuesday, 12 October 2010


We have been promised that the Coalition will be the greenest government ever.

Well, maybe. The jury has yet to start considering the evidence.

One of the first instances to be cited will be the government’s approach to the draft EU Regulation on Light Commercial Vehicles. Its object is to reduce CO2 emissions from white vans and their like. The European Commission has called for average emissions from new vehicles to be reduced by 2020 to 135g/km from about 200g/km today (which is also where they were a decade ago).

This should be a win-win proposal for business and the environment. Reducing CO2 emissions means raising fuel efficiency standards, making the vehicles cheaper to use. An impact assessment prepared for the Commission says that any increase in the costs of new vans will be offset by net savings in running costs of €2163 during their lifetimes. A study by the UK’s Department for Transport says the payback period will be less than 4 years. Both these reports are based on very conservative assumptions about oil prices and exaggerated assumptions about the likely increase in the price of new vehicles, but they have been sufficient to persuade the Federation of Small Businesses - not commonly known for its support for EU legislation - to come out in favour of the proposal.

By contrast the vehicle manufacturers are strongly opposed. They say (ludicrously!) that they cannot do better than 160g/km by 2020. But then the vehicle manufacturers have a long history of opposing legislation of this kind, only to embrace it with surprising ease once the political fight is over (think catalytic converts, lead free petrol, or even the very similar EU legislation that now sets CO2 reduction targets for passenger cars).

The rapporteur (lead negotiator) for the legislation in the European Parliament is Tory MEP Martin Callanan. Before the formation of the Coalition Government he proposed amending the target to 150g/km. He has since raised his ambitions ( a small success for Lib Dem-Con partnership at Westminster). Last month he secured the support of the Environment Committee for a target of 140g/km. I will back this if it proves to be the compromise necessary to gain strong cross-party support, although my aim in committee was to endorse the original Commission plan to try and secure a good position for the eventual negotiations to reconcile the differences.

Back in the UK there are three different government departments and three different ministers involved in determining the official position: Norman Baker at DfT, Chris Huhne at DECC, and Vince Cable at BIS. They are all Liberal Democrats. Just to complicate matters it is DfT that leads on the issue in Britain but it is DECC that has to take charge of negotiations in the EU Council of Ministers.

The UK has now announced that its official position is to support a target of 135g/km - but by 2022. This is the equivalent of a 2020 target of 147-148g/km, less ambitious than the European Parliament looks set to support and a very significant weakening of the Commission’s position.

Now if this were the government’s fallback position it might just be understandable, but it is the UK’s opening gambit. I wonder if the new ministers appreciate the bargaining that goes into making EU laws and achieving a common position - if you give an inch at this stage those with a different view will take a mile (the metric equivalent of this wording doesn’t sound so good).

My worry is that someone understands the bargaining position all too well, and that Chris Huhne is going to have to carry the can. Somehow he will have to explain why a government that wants the EU to cut CO2 emissions by 30% instead of 20% by 2020 also wants to weaken the the means by which the Commission hopes to achieve that goal.

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