EU chief causes stir by choosing hybrid Toyota

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A decision by the EU's top environment official to trade in his environmentally unfriendly Mercedes Benz for a greener, hybrid model - from Japan - has focused attention on the European Commission's polluting ways. The decision will bring the first non-European car on to the crowded forecourt of the Berlaymont building where commissioners' official limousines line up each day.

But it has also added spice to a row over plans to impose tough emission limits on European car makers. Despite claiming to put climate change at the top of their agenda, Europe's most senior officials have - so far - made little effort to lead by example with car choices.

And in the face of fierce opposition from Europe's luxury (and C02-emitting) manufacturers in Germany, the Commission is backing away from plans to impose strict emission limits on cars across Europe. It is the refusal by the Commission to practise what it preaches that is causing most amusement. Heavy C02-emitting Mercedes and BMWs are the most popular means of travel among the EU's 27 commissioners, though Britain's Peter Mandelson uses an equally thirsty Jaguar. But the European environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, has made it clear that, in April, he intends to opt for a less-polluting model - even though it is not European.

Mr Dimas is trying to choose between two Japanese options; a fuel-efficient Toyota Lexus or a Prius which switches between petrol engine and an emissions-free electric motor. The Prius hybrid petrol car emits 104 grams per kilometre while the Lexus - a larger car - pumps out 186gpk. Mr Dimas's current Mercedes, accounts for 270gpk.

The choice of the first Japanese car in the Commission fleet will deal a blow to the prestige of European car makers. The car pool revolution is also a growing embarrassment for the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, who has faced criticism for owning a 4x4 Volkswagen Touareg which emits a hefty 265 gpk.

Mr Barroso claims never to have driven the vehicle, which was chosen by his wife, but is refusing to bow to media pressure to get rid of it to set an example.

A spokeswoman said yesterday: "The [environment] commissioner has ... asked to have a more environmentally friendly car. Commissioners can only change when the leasing contract on the fleet has to be renewed. He has asked for an assessment of what cars would be available ... and is due to make his choice soon."

No other commissioners are known to be reconsidering their car choices and Mr Mandelson is sticking with his Jaguar. His spokesman said the car was seldom used and that the commissioner chose to live in the centre of Brussels to limit journeys.

The row has stirred a bitter dispute between Mr Dimas and the industry commissioner, Günter Verheugen who is responsible for policy towards car makers (and who drives a BMW 730 diesel). German by nationality, Mr Verheugen is acutely sensitive to the impact of new environmental measures on high-performance vehicle makers. Last month a row between Mr Verheugen and Mr Dimas forced the delay of a paper outlining plans to curb CO2 emissions from cars. Though they were working on separate elements of the same package, the commissioners refused to discuss the issue face to face until a few days ago. This meant that their original draft documents contradicted each other.

The Commission wants to legislate to force an average of 120gpk by 2012 though Mr Verheugen and Mr Dimas are locked in a bitter wrangle over how to achieve that. The industry commissioner backs the target but has insisted on an "integrated approach", which would mean looking at all the factors that affect emissions, including fuel, tyres, lubricants and transport policy, including traffic management and measures to reduce speed. Mr Dimas would put more onus on car makers.

European automakers are certain to miss the 2008 voluntary CO2 emissions target of 140gpk for new cars.