Much maligned diesel vehicles could cut greenhouse gas emissions

The US attitude of pouring scorn on noisy and dirty diesel-powered vehicles could be a mistake, and could soon change to be more like that of Europe, where diesel engines account for nearly one third of all new cars sold, according to the New York Times.

According to the newspaper, a report commissioned by Congress, which is shrouded in secrecy, and is due to be published in July, will suggest that “the surest, fastest way to improve the fuel efficiency of the American fleet would be to allow diesels to be a greater part of the landscape”. President Bush has said that he will wait to read the report before making any changes in the US’s stringent diesel fuel standards.

In Europe, the average diesel car does 40 miles to the gallon, with petrol cars not far behind on 32 miles per gallon, compared to new cars in the US which average only 24.5 miles per gallon, and give off a proportionally larger amount of greenhouse gases. In Europe diesel is far more socially acceptable, and even fashionable in countries such as France, where waiting lists for diesel cars are as much as four times that for petrol cars. However, a change is needed in the US public’s negative attitude, which originally occurred largely due to a rapid introduction of poorly designed diesel-powered vehicles into the market in the 1980s in response to a sudden rise in oil prices, if cars such as the new Audi A2, with 78 miles to the gallon, are to be accepted.

“I believe it’s just a matter of time before the United States comes around to diesel,” said David W Thursfield, Chief Executive of Ford Europe. “The technology has moved ahead so much. Fifty miles to the gallon is normal, and you don’t even know you are driving a diesel.”

Other US car manufacturers are not so sure. According to Harry Pearce, a vice chairman of General Motors, the company has no intention of investing in more diesel engines for the American market unless the air pollution rules change. “We’re denying ourselves the largest incremental step we could take” to reduce American emissions of global-warming gases, he said.

Environmentalists agree. “Diesel is the quick and dirty way to increase fuel economy,” said Daniel Becker, the director of energy and global warming policy at the Sierra Club. “As long as we have other technologies that are clean, I don’t see the point in producing carcinogenic soot.”

However, a member of Germany’s Green Party is more positive about the prospects for diesel. “A litre of diesel takes one further and produces fewer greenhouse gases,” said Albrecht Schmidt, an expert on energy issues. “The big problem with diesel is the small particulates, but we think that problem can be solved with new particulate filters.”

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