Green machine: the Airbus A380 is part of a new eco-friendly fleet of aircraft [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]
Zero-emission road travel and cleaner skies are in touching distance. But how much will it cost the consumer?

In less gloomy times for the economy, being a green motorist seemed much easier. Like the supermarket shopper buying organic spuds or eco-friendly washing-up liquid, driving an environmentally friendly car was seen as an expensive but worthwhile gesture. With rising inflation and fuel prices now hitting shoppers and motorists hard, what’s the real cost to you and the planet?

Hybrid technology is now available in mass-market vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and theHonda Civic Hybrid. Running on both a petrol-fuelled combustion engineand an electric motor powered by batteries, these types of car are much more efficient in terms of fuel economy and CO2 emissions than most road vehicles, which guzzle gas alone. The Civic Hybrid produces 109g/km of CO2 compared to 150g/km for the regular Civic – over a quarter less. As we know, petrol these days doesn’t come cheap, but nor do these cars. The Civic Hybrid is £2,500 more expensive than the standard model.

So, are there alternatives that don’t cost the earth?

Hybrid and alternative energy vehicles are very popular in the States. In June this year, sales of the Prius fell by a third – but only because they couldn’t keep up with the massive demand (Toyota are now planning to manufacture the car in the USA). In the same month, the latest generation of Hondas began to roll off the production line. The newFCX Clarity is a hydrogen fuel-cell powered car, which this month will be delivered in limited numbers to Californians, including the film actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

The hydrogen fuel-cell works in a very clean way, producing electricity directly from the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Water is the only by-product. Performance is comparable to a petrol powered machine, reaching 60mph in 10 seconds andmaxing out at 100mph. It raises the question of when the rest of us will get a look in. John Kingston, environment manager at Honda, provides the answers. “Japanese customers will see deliveries in November this year, but the infrastructure just isn’t in place elsewhere in the world. California already has five hydrogen fuelling stations, with 20 expected by 2010, so it’s a great testing bed.” So is there any alternative to hydrogen power for the UK market? “Very much so. We’re launching a completely new car next year called the Global Hybrid, which will be significantly more affordable than the current Civic Hybrid – bringing green motoring to a wider audience.”

Honda’s research and development team are no less busy than their production line. Their research into hydrogen fuel-cells has extended to the home energy station, which can charge up the fuel-cell, steaming the hydrogen out of your regular gas supply at home. Although it’s likely to be several years before this technology leaves the lab, it all helps to build the infrastructure needed to make this energy source viable.

But giving everyone somewhere to park up and pipe hydrogen into the tank is not the only hurdle. Its availability is problematic. Pure hydrogen gas does not occur naturally in concentrated amounts, so it has to be extracted from sources such as water, coal and natural gas – all of which can damage the environment. More needs to be donetoproduce hydrogen from renewable sources such as solar power before it can be considered a truly clean solution.

British engineers are also doing their bit. Lotus unveiled a tri-fuel version of its famous Exige, which runs on any mixture of gasoline, bioethanol and methanol. Performance isn’t sacrificed either – this is the most powerful Exige yet, with a top speed of 158mph. The Government is also putting money into a range of projects. As one of 16 low-carbon vehicle projects receiving funding from the Technology Strategy Board Ford, Jaguar and a number of partners, including Flybrid Systems, are exploring kinetic energy recovery. This means taking the energy generated during braking, and returning it as electrical energy to power the vehicle. According to Jon Hilton, of Flybrid, we could see their flywheel-based system hit the road by 2013.

Lotus are again involved in the state-backed Zero Emission London Taxi Commercialisation project – powering our cabbies with hydrogen in time for the 2012 Games in London. The capital seems especially fond of this energy source. New mayor Boris Johnson is persevering with Ken Livingstone’s plan to launch a fleet of 10 hydrogen-fuelled buses by 2010. So, have Transport for London considered the downside? Yes, according to a spokesperson, and they’re looking to the long term. “The hydrogen production process does produce some emissions, but even when this is taken into account, we still expect to make significant cuts in overall CO2 emissions. We expect hydrogen fuel-cell buses to produce 50 per cent less CO2 than their diesel counterparts, with that figure improving as even greener sources of hydrogen are developed.”

Public transport on the road or rails is by its very nature a greener way of getting around – and it can give you a saving on the running costs of a car. What’s not so clear is whether air travel is an acceptable alternative to using your own wheels.

When you consider the extra journeys to and from the airport, relatively high nitrogen oxide emissions (known as NOx), noise pollution and, of course, competition from evergreener automobiles, it’s not looking good. The aviation industry wants to improve things through the European Clean Sky initiative. This aims for a 50 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by drastically reducing fuel consumption, as well as an 80 per cent reduction in NOx emissions.

While, given rising fuel costs, the price of a ticket is not likely to drop, initiatives like this can take air transport in a greener direction, especially with the involvement of big players such as Airbus, who are also testing second generation biofuels. The company’s CEO, Thomas Enders, points out: “The environmental challenges facing aviation today require collaboration for solutions.”

But what can you afford to do for the planet? You’re not likely to get your hands on a shiny new hydrogen fuel-cell car just yet. But wait a couple of years, and you could be catching a zero-emission bus along London’s Oxford Street.

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