Car-makers accused of holding back new models as CO2 emissions rise

T&E says car-makers are keeping older, thirstier models on sale longer than needed

Environmental campaigners are accusing car-makers of holding back newer, more efficient models in an effort to maximise the profits gained from older cars.

According to eco-pressure group Transport & Environment (T&E), out of the top 50 selling cars, just six received upgrades or replacements in 2017. Just four are due for upgrade or replacement this year, ahead of an expected flood in 2019.

Greg Archer, clean vehicles director at T&E, said: "Car-makers are shameless crying wolf that they can't meet their CO2 targets and blaming declining diesel sales, while pushing old, inefficient, high-performance SUVs to maximise their profits. As a result CO2 emissions are rising and their customers are hit with higher fuel bills. But the reality is almost all serious car-makers in Europe will hit their targets and avoid fines."

T&E also says that car-makers are not only holding back new models, but specifically holding back plug-in hybrid and fully-electric cars “until the last possible minute”. Manufacturers’ strategy to comply with the 2021 targets is to increase sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, and this is likely to increase their market share in Europe significantly to 5-7 per cent by 2021, T&E’s report finds. There are only 20 battery electric cars on sale at present but by 2021 this is expected to leap to reach more than 100 if companies deliver on their announcements.


The analysis also finds that rising sales of SUVs – the market share of which increased from 4 per cent in 2001 to 26 per cent in 2016 – as well as more powerful engines have been largely responsible for rising car emissions.

It also concludes that declining sales of diesel cars are more than offset by the rising sales of much lower carbon alternatively fuelled vehicles; and, contrary to car-makers’ claims, more diesels and increasing fleet turnover increases the lifecycle emissions of CO2.

Petrol cars

New data from the European Environment Agency shows that the average CO2 emissions from diesel cars rose from 116.8g/km in 2016 to 117.9g/km in 2017, while CO2 emissions from petrol cars remained flat (-0.1g/km).

According to Archer, the continuing decline in diesel sales, which fell to 45 per cent of new registrations, had almost no effect, being more than offset by an increase in sales of low carbon plug-in cars (that rose by 42 per cent) and a decline in the CO2 gap between the average new diesel car (121.6g/km) and petrol (117.9g/km).

“The increase in new car CO2 emissions arises from manufacturers actively pushing for heavier, bigger diesels. With a rush of both more fuel efficient and plug-in models planned for launch in 2019, there will be sharp falls in new car CO2 emissions in the period 2019-22,” claimed Archer. “Combined with the huge windfall earned by car-makers through manipulating tests ensures almost all companies remain on track to achieve their 2020/1 targets. This new data from the EU environment agency disproves car-makers’ tale that falling diesel sales are to blame.”

Irish sales have certainly seen a dramatic shift to SUVs. The current top two selling models in the Republic are the Nissan Qashqai and Hyundai Tucson, and there are two other SUVs or crossovers (the Kia Sportage and Volkswagen Tiguan) in the top 10, with the balance being taken up by small and medium hatchbacks.

According to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, “average CO2 emissions from a new car (113.2g/km) in Q1 this year has increased by 1.5g/km (from 111.7g/km in Q1 2017). This would produce a calculated increase of around 2,000 tonnes in annual CO2 for the new cars registered so far this year. The increasing volume of imported used cars in Q1 had average CO2 emissions of 121.1g/km.”

Eoin Bannon, media manager for T&E, told The Irish Times that "the top selling SUVs in Ireland, the Qashqai and Tucson, are among a raft of model upgrades due in 2019 and 2020 – just in time to allow car-makers meet EU emissions targets in 2021 with more efficient vehicles".

Model upgrades

“Surging SUV sales in recent years have been an important source of profit for manufacturers, but at the expense of their fleets’ average CO2 emissions. The new report by T&E finds almost all European car-makers will comfortably meet their targets with model upgrades – but not before squeezing more out of the current line. While diesel car market share was down in Ireland this year so far by 20 per cent, T&E found the decline of the diesel engine is being cancelled out – in terms of carbon emissions – by hybrids and other low-carbon vehicle,” he said.

For its part, the industry denies that it is artificially holding back more eco-friendly models, saying that it is working hard to bring down vehicle emissions.

A spokesperson for ACEA, an umbrella organisation that represents European car-makers, said: “From industry’s side, ACEA members are fully committed to the further decarbonisation of road transport. Over the last years the EU automobile industry has delivered significant reductions in CO2 emissions from its vehicles. So far the average CO2 emissions of new cars have been reduced by 28 per cent since 2005. And by the year 2021 those reductions should amount to 42 per cent. No other EU industry sector has made such progress.

“Looking ahead, the auto industry believes that further reductions of CO2 emissions from passenger cars and vans beyond 2020 are possible – although at rapidly increasing cost and coming with certain socio-economic implications. Europe will need to recognise that new CO2 targets go hand in hand with structural changes that will have a strong impact on the entire automotive value chain. Hence, it is essential to get the timing and ambition level of the post-2021 CO2 targets right.”

Maximise returns

Whether or not car-makers are deliberately holding back in order to maximise returns on investments, the fact is that the SUV boom shows no signs of abating, and it is starting to kill off smaller, more economical models.

General Motors has confirmed that it will end production of the Chevrolet Sonic small car, and rumour has it that it will kill off the Impala four-door saloon as well. Ford is similarly contemplating ending Fiesta sales in the US.

The rot is starting to spread beyond the mainstream brands too, with reports of discounts of as much as $10,000 off a new BMW 3 Series saloon, and similar amounts off a Mercedes-Benz E-Class in the US market.

In Ireland, SUVs currently hold 13 per cent of the market, compared to 31 per cent for hatchbacks and 30 per cent for MPVs, but the quasi-offroaders are still gaining ground rapidly, increasing their market share by 34 per cent so far this year compared to 2017.

Hybrids and plug-in hybrid are also posting Irish sales gains (up by 64 per cent and 108 per cent so far this year) but their total sales numbers are still low – 291 plug-in hybrids, and 3,893 hybrids, as compared to 40,416 diesel cars sold so far this year, representing 56 per cent of the total market. Sales of battery-powered electric cars remain dismal at 281 but, the arrival of the new Nissan Leaf, launched in the Irish market this month, may boost that number soon.

Market share

Car-makers are continuing to say that diesel is still an important, indeed relevant, power source. Skoda, in posting record Irish market share of 7.1 per cent, noted that diesel still remained a hugely important part of its sales, powering 56 per cent of all its models (it’s worth pointing out that Skoda does not yet offer any electric, hybrid, or plug-in hybrid models).

John Donegan, brand director at Skoda Ireland, said: "Strong demand for our diesel-powered vehicles helped us achieve our greatest first-quarter result ever in the brands history. We believe that our efficient EU6 Diesel engines still provide the best solution for the majority of Irish motorists. Diesel is alive and doing very well. By 2020 we will be offering our customers the option of electric, plug-in hybrid, petrol and, of course, diesel."

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring