Ecodriving: More than a drop in the ocean?

Das Auto, Das Ecodriving ©Sebastien Pirlet/Reuters

The urgency of reducing fuel consumption rates while transport moves towards massive development over the next two decades, notably among developing economies, is clear. Any weapon counts as part of the overall package. Enter “ecodriving”.
The notion may still be unfamiliar to many, but “ecodriving” is the latest buzzword among policymakers whose job it is to find cost-effective ways of meeting CO2 reduction targets. It especially appeals to governments because it requires no new technology, although dashboard-mounted vehicle computers and other on-board devices can be useful. It also demands negligible public funding while offering immediate financial gains to drivers and companies.It is a simple, cheap and potentially popular way of suppressing up to 10% of every driver’s fuel-burning CO2 spillage–a significant amount if applied to all road users. What’s more, it could help to reduce road accidents, which currently claim one million lives every year worldwide.Ecodriving is the concept, and some governments and organisations promote it under various labels, like Eco-Driven, or with real pilot projects, such as ECODRIVE. The idea requires nothing more complicated than re-educating drivers about the use of their vehicles. Its CO2 reduction target is obtained by keeping the engine of a moving vehicle turning at between 2,000 and 2,500 revolutions per minute, the practice of decelerating and accelerating gently and the avoidance of prolonged idling, along with ensuring that tyres are correctly inflated and limiting the use of on-board electrical accessories, notably air conditioning, all of which can raise fuel consumption.At first glance this may appear to be as pertinent an initiative for slowing down global warming as a boycott of imported strawberries. However, the EU Commission’s European Climate Change Programme estimated in 2001 that adoption of ecodriving across the then 15 EU countries had the potential to remove 50 million tons of CO2 per year from their total road traffic emissions.Indeed, real world tests among the half dozen countries currently leading national ecodriving campaigns have found an immediate mean reduction, from Japan to Germany, of 10% of CO2 among the vehicles of volunteer participants. The challenge, however, is that of reaching a sufficient number of hearts and minds so that there is some arguable impact on the ozone layer; but if only 10% of drivers save 10% of CO2 output, it’s back to boycotting those strawberries.Among the countries that have adopted ecodriving as part of their national CO2 reduction policy, Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden have also made ecodriving behaviour an integral part of the driving licence test. Whether the candidate keeps it up afterwards is a question, but the aim is to influence habits among future drivers.Along with these countries, Austria, Canada and Japan and, to a lesser degree, the UK, sponsor programmes promoting ecodriving, targeting freight haulage companies with training campaigns, ecodriving programme models and public events like providing simulators at vehicle exhibitions. All of them also target road transport companies, where there is an obvious attraction in significant cost savings.Other agencies that encourage ecodriving include the EU, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (the international umbrella organisation for motoring organisations which has to date led 10,000 ecodriving courses across five continents aimed at both private and business vehicle users), and vehicle manufacturers such as Ford Europe, BMW and Isuzu.But the country that has done the most to promote ecodriving is the Netherlands, and the results serve as an interesting model for others. The Dutch programme, which stemmed directly from the 1997 Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, is a 10-year campaign that began in 1999 and which was costed at 35 million euros. It even includes ecodriving practices on inland waterways.Latest available figures from yearly evaluations of the Dutch programme show that in 2006 the ecodriving campaign was directly responsible for slashing 0.3 million tons of CO2 from road traffic emissions. The target is that by 2010, ecodriving will account for a yearly reduction of 1.5 million tons of CO2 emissions. If that ambition is achieved, the Dutch government estimates the cost of the 10-year programme (principally a communications campaign) will have been equivalent to less than 10 euros per ton of CO2 saved. Interestingly, the Dutch campaign to persuade public adoption of ecodriving focuses principally on the non-environmental benefits, namely saving fuel costs, increased safety and passenger comfort. Energy savings and CO2 reduction are presented as subsidiary issues.Or consider Sweden, another country boasting a vigorous ecodriving campaign. One good reason it is applying it is that, according to an EU-15 country comparison, its vehicle stock was found to be among the oldest, heaviest, most powerful and, consequently, the most fuel-consuming there is. Driving older cars better would make sense, rather than, say, wastefully dumping them and replacing them with hi-tech lighter versions.And therein lies a problem: for while drivers may cut their fuel bills, one also has to calculate the offset in indirect CO2 production if they then use the money saved to buy energy-intensive consumer goods or drive longer distances. But there are other criticisms of ecodriving. Current monitoring of the long-term habits of trained ecodrivers show that the majority eventually regain a few old habits, slashing the 10% CO2 savings by half. More importantly, some (perhaps cynically) argue that the cost-effectiveness of ecodriving does not generate revenue for local authorities, unlike fines, taxes and road tolls.The ecodriving lobby insist that this assumption misses its very raison d’être; it is because the costs of promoting ecodriving are so minimal that they could never be usefully re-directed at other, more involved efforts to improve vehicle fuel efficiency. It is, they argue, a complementary measure and precisely because it is so cheap and potentially popular, no-one can afford to ignore it.  GT/RJC
References ©OECD Observer No 267 May-June 2008

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