Leading article: The drive to environmentalism

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The Independent Online

There are welcome signs that the motor industry is beginning to take the environmental agenda seriously. To coincide with the opening of the British International Motor Show this week, Ford's European chief, Lewis Booth, has announced a £1bn investment into researching cleaner technologies over the next five years.

The show itself also presents a host of ideas for greener motoring. A prototype Mitsubishi with in-wheel electric motors is on display. Its manufacturer hopes to have it in production by the end of the decade. New flexible fuel technology is showcased too, in the form of Saab's 2.3-litre BioPower engine and Ford's Focus FFV. Cleaner cars that are already on the market are also featured such as Honda's Civic Hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h, and, perhaps the most celebrated cleaner car to date, the Toyota Prius.

Much as car manufacturers would like us to believe that their efforts in this area were born of concern for the planet, their motivation is more likely to be plain old self-interest. The motor industry no longer has a choice over whether it takes environmental concerns seriously. Rising oil prices and greater consumer awareness of the threat posed by climate change are making cleaner technologies a commercial imperative. Cleaner cars will be one of the major growth areas for the industry over the next few decades. A manufacturer that does not invest in this new technology - whether hybrid, bio-fuel, hydrogen, electric, or simply making conventional vehicles more fuel efficient - will be left behind.

In his intervention yesterday, Mr Booth warned the Government against unfairly championing one set of green technologies over others. By this he doubtless had in mind the tax breaks already available to hybrid vehicles. We need not take this complaint too seriously. Hybrid manufacturers, such as Ford's arch-rival Toyota, are favoured because they developed green motoring technology sooner. It is up to others to catch up if they want the same treatment. But this intervention does raise the serious point that governments have to play a vital role in encouraging cleaner motoring through the tax system and regulation. Our leaders cannot simply demand that manufacturers come up with all the answers.

Our attitudes to motoring are changing. This is reflected not just in the fact that cleaner cars are coming on to the market. It is also seen in our ready acceptance of schemes such as the London congestion charge and the growing popular feeling against the proliferation of large 4x4 vehicles in towns. All this is feeding through to the cars we buy and how we use them. Consumer power alone will not save the planet. But it will play its part.