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The great CO2 deception

Date: 06 December 2006

The Government's and now Ken's masterstroke has been to separate CO2 from fuel consumption, says The Insider

Nothing separates CO2 output and fuel consumption. Nothing at all. You burn fuel, you produce CO2.

Yet recently they've become separated, more so now Ken Livingstone has expressed his wish to triple the London charge for the worst CO2 emitters. Suddenly everyone's speaking a language us fleet types had to learn what seems like years ago. Even my teenage son now speaks in g/km.

Following Ken's announcement, the two opposing camps started lobbing brickbats at one another. "It's the end of the Chelsea tractor", crowed the Greens, once they'd realised the potential £25 charge will be applied to residents living in the new zone, which sucks in chunks of SW1 from next year.

"A cruel tax on hardworking families," struck back the car industry association, after discovering that a handful of petrol people-carriers will be caught out.

Meanwhile, fleet managers across the land saw that, with a 226g/km minimum, absolutely no-one apart from a few petrolhead directors will get trapped, or at least not trapped any worse. That's nearly the top-whack BIK tax band, and which company car driver can afford to go there? Much better for us is the news that small diesels producing under 120g/km could duck under, and a year earlier than the 2009 £25 charge too. No more expensive Priuses or obsolete LPG conversions for us. Hoo-bloody-rah to that.

But nothing I've seen written about it actually talks about fuel consumption, bar the odd "gas-guzzling" adjective. For some reason, CO2 and the taxing of it seems to focus people's minds in a way that mpg never did. Companies blithely went on paying hundreds of thousands a year on fuel as their 2.5-litre V6 Omegas were thrashed up and down the motorways, only for the new BIK laws to dramatically halt that.

Private BMW owners saw the glory, not the fuel bill, and just slipped it into fifth a bit earlier on the motorway if the journey was especially long. Many owners had no clue of what their actual fuel consumption was, probably still don't.

But CO2, now that's different. Never mind that as a measure of what actually goes into the atmosphere it is as unreliable as the combined consumption figure. No wait, it's exactly as unreliable. A car maker tweaks the engine or transmission so that it's as efficient as it can be over the pottering little run the EU testers use to measure economy (and, of course, CO2), then claim the consumption figure is only a comparative figure, not what you can expect in the real world.

In the end it's all down to a financial decision by whoever runs and pays for the car. Can I afford it or not? Imagine kicking up a storm when, say, Porsche launches a new car? "Car maker launches 22mpg car, owners shocked" runs the inflammatory headline. "I think this is disgraceful," said one potential owner, "I just won't be able to afford to run it." That sounds stupid, yet this London charge is decried by as some as infringing our automotive liberties.

Whether we deserve all these extra taxes is another question, but our motoring liberties have always been connected with ability to pay. The authorities' cleverness has been to introduce CO2 as a new slice in the piechart of car costs. Even though it's not new at all. It's exactly the same as fuel consumption.

The Insider is a fleet manager with years of invaluable experience