It’s time automakers made a real effort to stop pollution

There was some public relations posturing by various companies in attempts to mop up the carbon they put into the atmosphere to varying degrees of success and credibility. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • If the authorities can execute a more brutal but ultimately more effective protocol: phasing out old vehicles one Euro number by one.
  • A more pointed question is: is there no voluntary urge on their end to actually face down the effects of their vehicles on the environment?

By now it should be obvious to everyone that any automaker worth his salt either is or intends to go hybrid or electric within the foreseeable future in the interests of preserving the environment, but activists with strong feelings about the matter doubt if this is enough.

These aforementioned activists with strong feelings sometimes have a tendency to adopt a heavy-handed approach towards achieving their admittedly honourable goal - an approach that is not above sowing fear and dread in a bid to inspire action in a population that has long been viewed as slow to take up the planet-saving mantra.

One of these reactions was lending an inordinate and excessive amount of credence to an offhand remark that has since been debunked by the self-same personality who made it: that if we don't act now, the earth will become uninhabitable within 12 years.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admitted that the apocalyptic allegation was an exaggeration and "dry humour" on her part when she made it, but she was serious about the deadline.

Here's how: as I had discussed in a previous thesis last year, the Paris Agreement had a general consensus to keep global temperature increments below 2 degrees Celsius at worst, with the actual target being keeping it below 1.5 degree Celsius.

TIME TO ACT

Shortly afterwards, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change submitted a report evaluating this objective and revealed that the earth will reach that 1.5-degree threshold between the years 2030 and 2052, or "12 years from now, at the earliest", in other words.

That was the exact same point where the report pointed out that this temperature rise will be accompanied by a rise in sea levels, flooding and famine.

They didn't mean to imply that 12 years from now the planet will turn into the set of a disaster movie, but that is how the political class and the Fourth Estate took it and boy, did they panic.

They were goaded, no doubt, by activists who proclaimed the end times were nigh, and this time it's for real because it's the scientists who said it.

We already see signs of it anyway: floods and famine are manifest. All that is left is for San Francisco and Los Angeles to slide into the ocean and the Armageddon would be well and truly on.

(Myles Allen from Oxford was the lead scientist behind that report, and he says there's barely any significance to that 1.5-degree threshold as far as the end of the world is concerned. We may have already crossed the 1.25-degree point already, so another 0.25 degrees won't feel any different.

It will lead to the predicted consequences, sure, but we are already on that path anyway, which is why climate change needs to be addressed, and the sooner the better.)

FALSE PANIC

I'm not trivialising climate change but this is where we clarify: it's never that serious.

OK, it is serious but the world won't end like the third act of a summer blockbuster.

The magnitude of these predicted consequences of climate change are supposed to guide nations on how to respond, not create widespread terror because widespread terror is the exact circumstance under which people tend not to think or act rationally. It is false panic.

This false panic induced by poorly-informed politicians and journalists with the help of overambitious activists all led to some knee-jerk reactions from several quarters, partly inspired by actual belief that we have little more than a decade left before rendering ourselves extinct, and partly inspired by the need to maintain a good image via a public relations exercise.

The latter was mainly taken up by the quintessential bogeyman that everybody points to whenever the subject of climate change comes up: car manufacturers.

There was some public relations posturing by various companies in attempts to mop up the carbon they put into the atmosphere to varying degrees of success and credibility.

BRAND POSITIONING

Take Toyota, which sells millions of cars annually. They dedicated themselves to plant five million trees in a region north of Beijing.

This may look like a PR stunt but even if it is, it is a rather clever one. Beijing's second biggest claim to fame is being shrouded in a cloak of choking smog (the first claim to fame is being the capital of the world's biggest car market).

Those five million trees will come in handy when that brown mist hanging over Beijing needs to be cleared.

China is also currently the world's biggest EV market, mostly following a government directive rather than the people's desire to move in total silence and zero emissions.

It is not entirely dissimilar to their infamous one-child policy in a bid to control population growth, but it is definitely less sinister.

Toyota's manoeuvre to help clear up the Chinese atmosphere will most likely endear them to both the authorities and the people. Remember that China is the world's biggest car market.

You can probably see where this is going: brand positioning, which will lead to more sales, at least of EVs if not of all powertrain configurations.

RETROGRESSIVE STEP

Less clever and showier are Bentley Motors and Bugatti, two siblings in the sprawling House of Volkswagen.

Their products are more infamous than Toyota's as far as carbon emissions are concerned: both Bentley and Bugatti build low-occupancy, high-performance niche vehicles with massive engines and stratospheric price tags, the very definition of wastefulness and "unsustainability" when viewed through a green lens.

If there ever was an environmental revolution, these two would be among the first to be guillotined.

Of course they know this, so of course they need to appease the masses before sea levels start to rise.

Bentley came up with "100 Trees for 100 Years", a centenary celebration that would see them plant 100 saplings of species native to the UK such as oak, maple, beech and cherry.

Now, there is no diplomatic way to put this, but 100 trees are nowhere near enough to make a difference in the atmosphere.

They won't even negate the environmental effect of a single Flying Spur.

Two other things stand out as well: first, the species of tree they are planting take a really long time to reach maturity — acorns take up to 18 months to mature into oak trees that keep growing until they are 700 years old, and can live up to 1000 — but only one in 10,000 acorns ever grows into an actual tree.

Secondly, Bentley uses wood to ramp up the luxury quotient of their cars' interiors, meaning they may likely take away more trees from nature in a year than they put in for that centenary celebration.

REFORESTATION PROJECT

Planting only 100 trees when you build 6.0-litre 12-cylinder twin turbo engines and use rare wood on almost all your dashboards can only be summed up in one word: pretentiousness.

Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S. They make the Chiron which packs an 8,000cc engine with four turbochargers and enough power to supply an entire town with electricity (this is not an exaggeration, the Chiron's engine develops 1.1 megawatts * at full chat, or 1,480hp in common parlance) and has been driven at speeds close to 500km/h.

(*: To put things in perspective, the famous "Masinga Dam" Hydroelectric Power Station has a nameplate capacity of 40MW, or "only" 36 Bugatti Chirons)

To specifically offset the not-insignificant CO2 emissions that each Chiron coughs out (along with the offices and factories, they added), the company opted to partner with French officials in a reforestation project that will see them plant 4,000 trees for a start.

This is clearly better than planting just 100 trees in a celebration that comes once a century, but again … is it enough?

In comparison, my own father, who lives in retirement and barely drives, planted 12,000 trees by himself.

CHANGE OF TACK

He is not a corporation worth billions of euros, he is just a retired ex-civil servant living quietly in a forest he made by his own hand, but he planted 120 times more trees than Bentley did. What is wrong with this picture?

Admittedly, both Bentley and Bugatti build cars in extremely low numbers so their combined effects cannot compare to, say, the 1.34 million Corollas sold by Toyota in 2015 alone (as an example).

And as a bonus, these Bentleys and Bugattis aren't driven as much as the millions of Corollas are.

But if you are to engage in a public relations stunt you need to cover all your bases.

Image is everything, and if your image is a giant power plant (doesn't make sense calling them engines) hidden inside a beautifully sculpted carbon-fibre shell capable of attaining almost half the speed of sound, planting 4,000 trees just won't cut it.

(In all fairness, the same Bugatti says they are done with the high-horsepower maximum-velocity wars and are in talks with parent company Volkswagen to build an electric four-seater, so there's that)

* * * * *

The local bureau of standards, Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs), recently announced the adoption of Euro 4 emissions standards, in a jump from "Euro Zero" (quite literally "anything goes") which was implemented at the turn of the millennium two decades ago.

Of course there has been a reaction from local assemblers over this move, citing short notice. Both of these people are right and both of them are wrong.

Here's why: the government is right in that it is about time we started putting a kibosh on engines that pollute.

However, waking up one morning and deciding that we should now adopt Euro 4 emissions standards up from Euro Nothing smacks of a public relations manoeuvre from people desperate to be seen to be doing something. But are they really doing something worthwhile?

If the authorities were keen on actually facing climate change head-on, rather than pick an arbitrary Euro number as the new threshold below which new engines must not fall, they could have instead executed a more brutal but ultimately more effective protocol: phasing out old vehicles one Euro number by one.

Start at Euro Zilch. Any car without an emissions control system either has its owner pay a heavy fine or is junked. Move on to Euro one, then two and work your way up from there.

INEFFICIENT ENGINES

It is understandable that refinery processes means fuel quality varies globally from one region to another, but this is no longer much of an excuse.

The world is currently at Euro 6 level, with Euro 7 coming into effect in 2020. Yet we want to embrace Euro 4 which was set in 2005 and superseded by Euro 5 in 2009. For how long do we plan to live in the past?

Enter another player, a local assembler who enjoys great success especially in the medium and heavy duty bus and truck segments.

There is a good explanation behind this success, but a good explanation can also be sinister: they sell vehicles with engines from the '90s - engines so obsolete that a lot of the diesel units have no turbochargers and are therefore extremely inefficient and burn a lot of fuel for the output they have.

When we talk of Euro Nothing standards, these are the guys we are referring to.

They rightfully called out the government for the sudden directive, asking for more time to implement the new standards, proposing that the government delays adoption of Euro 2 standards to 2021 and Euro 4 by 2024 … in other words, keep lagging behind developed countries by a clean two decades.

MISPLACED PRIORITIES

They cite product planning, fuel quality confirmation and preparation of plants as reasons for the delay, which is frankly selfish because what they are saying is the environment can keep taking a hit until they clear their old, noncompliant stock, then we can now move from there.

There are several questions I asked myself as I followed these developments and the first one was: they must have known this day was coming; the day when we'd actually start to care about the emissions levels of cars we allow onto our roads.

It was inevitable. So why were they still slinging Euro Zero engines this deep into the 21st Century?

A more pointed question is: is there no voluntary urge on their end to actually face down the effects of their vehicles on the environment?

They willingly and knowingly sell highly polluting obsolete engines in this day and age implying they really don't care about the environment, profits take priority over everything else.

If it sells, keep selling it. And consequences be damned. That is why they want more time to "plan their affairs" in terms of product and infrastructure at the expense of the atmosphere.

MODERN ENGINES

I touched on the urgency of embracing measures to counteract the effect of global temperature rise, but from where I'm standing, this assembler is saying "yea, we'll do that but at our convenience".

The parent company of this local assembler has modern engines, so they don't have any R & D costs to meet as they update the power plants they sell here into something from this century.

The stories about fuel quality confirmation are exactly that: stories. We do have modern engines from other manufacturers running on the 50 ppm diesel we currently receive from the refinery.

And it does not help their case that Scania East Africa — a competitor in the heavy duty segment — has Euro 5 engines in the country and has found the fuel quality to be sufficient.