Green Motoring

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How green cars can save you money

There are already incentives for owning a cleaner car and more on the way. Cars with higher emissions, on the contrary, are set to be stung with ever higher running costs.

If you drive into London 's congestion zone you'll be acutely aware that it costs you £8 a go - unless you're in a hybrid. That exemption from the charge is enough to save you nearly £2000 a year if you drive to work in the zone every day, and there's always the chance that other similar zones could be introduced.

The Local Transport Bill from the Department for Transport is designed to give councils more powers to introduce charging schemes like London 's. However, given the failure of the proposed scheme in Manchester and Boris Johnson's decision to scrap the western extension of the zone in London , further charge zones look unlikely in the near future.

The more economical your car, the less you'll also be shelling out in fuel duty, even though the economic situation has seen some proposed rises postponed. The 20p per litre incentive for biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel continues, but the cost of production means they remain only a couple of pence per litre cheaper at the end of the day (and still not widely available).

From April 2008 you have also had a 2% reduction in company car tax if you opt for a car that can runs on E85 bioethanol. Use conventional fuel and the CO2-related bandings get tougher, the threshold for the minimum 15% tax band falling from 140g/km to 135g/km.

Furthermore, a new 10% band was also introduced in April 2008 for cars emitting less than 120g/km.

Vehicle excise duty (road tax) is also getting cheaper for cars with lower emissions and more expensive for those with higher emissions.

Any car emitting less than 100g/km (such as the VW Polo Bluemotion) will pay nothing. Choose one that emits less than 120g/km, and you'll pay just £35 a year.

Cars in band C to F will see bills rise between £15 and £30, while the top band G charges cars that emit more than 226g/km £400. From April 2009, the system will be changed again to further incentivise lower-emitting cars. There will be more bands, with the top costs applying to cars that emit more than 255g/km of CO2.

Why greener cars can cost more

Cars powered by relatively small engines that use established engine technology can be satisfyingly affordable and environmentally friendly, but models that use newer technology can cost much more.

The reason is that manufacturers need to recoup the cost of developing new technologies such as hybrids, and these cars also use expensive parts, including lighter-weight materials and high-tech li-ion (lithium-ion) batteries.

With comparatively small sales, hybrids also don't enjoy the same economies of scale as conventionally powered cars, which pushes up the price as well.

However, as the technology becomes more available and more people adopt it, the cheaper these types of vehicles should get. Toyota has predicted it will enjoy the same profit on its hybrid cars as it does on conventionally powered models by 2010.

While that doesn't mean they'll cost the same as conventionally powered alternatives, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Beyond hybrid power lies even newer emergent technology, such as fuel cells that run on hydrogen rather than fossil fuels.

There are some formidable technical hurdles to overcome before it's a practical alternative, however, so you can bet that the first hydrogen-powered cars you'll be able to buy - perhaps in 2015 or so - will cost you a pretty penny.

What is Global Warming?

The Earth is naturally warmed by ultraviolet rays from the sun which pass through the atmosphere to the surface.

Much of this radiation is reflected back into space, but gases in the atmosphere - so-called greenhouse gases - create a thermal blanket, trapping some of this radiation.

This has kept the Earth at the right temperature to sustain life. The problem now, however, is that rising levels of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, are trapping more radiation, pushing global temperatures up.

Some argue that rising temperatures are part of natural meteorological cycles, but the conclusion based on an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence is inescapable - human activity is increasing global temperatures.

Some also joke that increases in temperature are welcome, a new Mediterranean-style climate allowing us to get a better tan and grow new flowers, vegetables and fruit in our gardens.

The reality is that increases in temperatures might be pleasant initially, but will quickly give way to increasingly violent weather extremes here and abroad that will have a devastating impact on billions of people.

So the goal isn't really to save the planet, but ourselves - the Earth would merrily continue on without us if we were gone�

What part does Transport play in Global Warming

What Carbon dioxide isn't the only gas responsible for the greenhouse effect, but it does account for around half of global warming. Methane is the other major contributor, but it's a lot harder to limit the output of this gas so sights are set securely on CO2.

By burning fossil fuels, the transport sector is responsible for around 25% of CO2 emissions, with aviation and cars the main culprits.

The European Union has now set targets for a reduction in the CO2 emitted by cars, with their aim being an average of 120g/km by 2015 - 25% less than the figure in 2008. The target will be phased in over three years, starting off with 65% of cars needing to meet the target in 2012, with that figure climbing to 75% and 80% in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Although there are concessions for manufacturers who make low numbers of cars - their target is to cut emissions by 25% from their 2007 levels - makers who fail to meet these targets will face fines. Experts also agree that car makers have to look at alternative energy sources and that the transport industry and car makers have to take the issue much more seriously.

If we don't curb CO2 output from cars, the planet will continue to warm up. The main consequence will be an increase in the instability of our weather systems, so instead of having a catastrophic flood in the UK once every century, we might have one every 10 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) reckons average temperatures could rise by as much as six degrees by 2100 if we carry on the way we are.

The proportion of the world�s land surface that�s able to support human habitation would shrink - perhaps by 15-20% by the end of the century. There will be a serious loss of quality of life and mass forced migration. Places will become massively overpopulated - and it�s going to affect your kids� generation.

Is the transport issue only about CO2?

There's more to motoring and protecting the environment than CO2.

Engines also produce carbon monoxide, particulates, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons, and all have an impact on the environment, albeit a more localised effect.

They're all a result of the incomplete burning of fuel in the engine, and will continue to be produced despite the fact that modern engines have to become increasingly efficient. All cars are governed by a series of European-wide emissions regulations. Currently, cars are subject to Euro IV requirements, with the tougher Euro V standard set to be introduced in September 2009.

Carbon monoxide

Breathing in carbon monoxide reduces your blood's ability to carry oxygen. Very high levels of the gas can be fatal, which is why it's always wise to a have a carbon monoxide detector in your home in case your boiler breaks down.

Even the far lower levels produced by cars are thought to pose a health risk, however, especially to those suffering from heart disease. If you were to stand around in a traffic jam for a long time, you may develop headaches and dizziness as a result of exposure.

Particulates

Particulate matter (PM) is a problem for diesel engines which produce large amounts of PM10 (so called because the particles are 10 micrometers in diameter). This can be seen as smoke coming out of the exhaust.

PM10s are the largest particles that your nose and throat can't effectively filter out, so they end up in your lungs. Here they aggravate existing respiratory diseases and are thought to contribute to higher levels of asthma and heart disease.

Nitrous oxides/NOx

Nitric oxide combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to create nitrogen dioxide and various other oxides of nitrogen.

Like particulates, the gases are thought to be responsible for aggravating and causing respiratory illnesses, but could also increase allergic reactions.

NOx are also linked to the formation of acid rain which damages vegetation and crops.

Hydrocarbons

Fuel you stick in your tank is a hydrocarbon (something with a molecular structure compromised mainly of hydrogen and carbon), so strictly speaking we should be talking about carbon here - a posh word for soot.

Either way, this material contributes to the formation of ground level ozone which, again, is thought to be responsible for causing and aggravating respiratory conditions.

What can motorists do?

It's not just about car makers. Our individual actions contribute to climate change.

In 2006, 61 billion car journeys were made in the UK - that�s an 80% increase in 25 years. Were all those journeys really necessary? If everyone walked or cycled for three out of every 100 journeys, instead of using their car, that would help to reduce CO2 emissions massively.

We are not talking about draconian government intervention here, just a tiny adjustment on the part of everyone.

However, it's clear that we will have to want to make greener choices, not be forced into them. It may feel as if motoring is more expensive than ever before, but in real terms it�s almost 20% lower than it was 20 years ago. What's more, studies show we'd also continue to use our cars even with significant increases in costs.

Part of the problem is our public transport system, which is in need of a revolution. Many people hardly ever use public transport because of its poor image, poor service and because the majority of vehicles used are of very poor quality.

Fuel Types: Petrol - Whats it all about?

As used in: The majority of cars on the road today.

What is it? Unleaded is distilled from crude oil and then refined. It is burnt in an internal combustion engine to produce power.

Where can I buy it? At every fuel station in the UK - almost 10,000 locations.

Pros: Unleaded is widely available, affordable and engines are becoming more fuel-efficient.

Cons: It emits high levels of carbon dioxide, returns lower fuel economy than diesel or hybrids and is a finite resource.

Expert view: Unleaded petrol will continue to play an important part in motoring, either on its own or as part of a hybrid/dual-fuel system. Advances in technology have led to engines that are cleaner and more fuel-efficient. Car makers promise further improvements if oil companies can remove sulphur from petrol.

Outlook: Unleaded petrol has an important part to play, at least in the short term.

Fuel Types: Diesel - Whats it all about?

As used in: Virtually every current car that doesn't use unleaded.

What is it? Like petrol, diesel is distilled from crude oil and burned in an internal combustion engine.

Where can I buy it? Available nationwide at every petrol station.

Pros: Diesel is easy to buy and generally gives better fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emissions than petrol.

Cons: It has relatively high emissions of tiny particulates, which are linked with breathing difficulties and local pollution. Diesel, too, has a finite supply. Diesel cars also have a price premium over petrol cars and are taxed higher for company car drivers.

Expert view: Diesel engines have been the success story of the past decade. They are more polluting than petrol engines in many respects, although particulate filters and catalytic converters are addressing this. Future diesel/electric hybrids will provide top economy.

Outlook: Diesel technology will improve further, especially with hybrids. However, diesel cannot be considered as a long-term solution.

Fuel Types: Hybrid - Whats it all about?

As used in: Honda Civic Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Lexus RX400h & LS600h, with many more to come.

What is it? A car with two power sources, usually a petrol engine and an electric motor, though diesel hybrids are being developed, too.

Where can I buy it? Hybrids use unleaded, so any petrol station.

Pros: Hybrids have better fuel economy and lower emissions than petrol-powered models. There are tax advantages; and they are easy to refuel.

Cons: There is only a limited choice of models - and these are generally pricey. The major fuel economy savings are achieved in town only and hybrids have limited range when only powered by an electric motor.

Expert view: Hybrid cars will be an increasingly attractive alternative to conventional vehicles.

Outlook: They will almost certainly bridge the gap between the current generation of cars and zero-emission vehicles in 10 or so years. Forthcoming diesel hybrids can only enhance their appeal.

Fuel Types: LPG - Whats it all about?

As used in: Only a few new cars, such as the Proton ecologic range, but there are many used cars converted to run on the fuel.

What is it? Modified cars can run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or compressed natural gas (CNG).

Where can I buy it? At about 1400 fuel stations across the UK .

Pros: The cost of gas is low and it has lower emissions of carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons than petrol and fewer particulates than diesel.

Cons: To date, there is relatively limited supply in the UK . Gas must be stored in high-pressure tanks and has poorer mpg. Government grants for gas-run cars are no longer available.

Expert view: Gas has not taken off as quickly as the Government would like, but it's still a viable alternative.

Outlook: Needs further commitment from government and car makers for it to catch on. Like petrol and diesel, however, LPG and CNG are finite resources

Fuel Types: Biofuel - Whats it all about?

As used in: Some Ford and Saab models.

What is it? Biofuels are much like petrols or diesels, but the fuel is derived from organic sources, such as waste vegetable oil (green diesel) or sugar cane (bioethanol).

Where can I buy it? You may already be buying it without realising it, as all fuel now has to contain a certain (albeit very small) proportion of biofuel. However, fuel with a larger proportion of biofuel, such as E85 or B30, is far less widely available. Morrisons became the first supermarket chain to sell bioethanol at some of its stores, but others have yet to follow.

Pros: Biofuels have much lower emissions and no net carbon dioxide emissions. They are not dependent on fossil fuel resources and some will run in unmodified engines.

Cons: The fuels are almost impossible to obtain in the UK , and some cars cannot run on them without modification. The amount of land needed to produce the plants to make the fuel in suitable quantities may be prohibitive.

Expert view: Biofuels will conserve fossil fuel stocks, but viability will depend on availability and cost.

Outlook: Biofuels certainly have a future, but it is unlikely we can ever be totally reliant on them.

Fuel Types: Electricity - Whats it all about?

As used in: The G-Wiz, Nice Mega City , Micro Vett Idea, Sakura Maranello4 and Elettrica.

What is it? The car is driven by a battery-powered electric motor.

Cost: A complete recharge takes about six hours, at the electricity provider's normal rate.

Where can I buy it? Anywhere with an electric plug socket.

Pros: No pollution from the car; low tax liabilities.

Cons: The range and maximum speed of most electric cars are limited, while their batteries are heavy and large. The crash safety of some models has been questioned, too.

Expert view: Almost without exception, electric vehicles are viable only for short urban journeys. However, the environmental benefits are compromised if they are charged using electricity generated from fossil fuel power stations.

Outlook: Useful for city dwellers; only major technical advances will make them suitable everyday transport for most people.