Leading article: Why doesn't Europe make green cars?

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The Independent Online

European officials have a knack for handing rods to Europhobes to beat them with. Just as the world wakes up to the peril of global warming, a European commissioner who shows he is alert to this concern by announcing he will replace his gas-guzzling car with a more environmentally-friendly variety is criticised by colleagues for not choosing a vehicle made in Europe.

Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner, has, of course, behaved commendably by putting to one side this rather spurious appeal to Euro-patriotism and choosing a less polluting car over the Mercedes and Volkswagens favoured by his colleagues.

It does not matter at all that Mr Dimas is stuck for choice between two Japanese options. This ought to serve as a useful jumping off point into a debate about why the European car industry is so ill prepared to meet the growing public demand for cars that don't actively help to push up the world's thermometer.

European manufacturers, dominated by Germany, have in fact developed several hybrid diesel-electric cars that are quite efficient in terms of CO2 reduction. But for reasons mainly to do with brand recognition they have been reluctant to push them on to the market, preferring to concentrate on their established image as purveyors of models of the old luxury type.

As a result the Japanese have stolen a march on their stodgy and unadventurous rivals, tapping a vein among a wealthy but public-spirited audience, especially in America.

It is easy to mock this trend among the well-to-do for caring about the cars' green credentials as self-indulgent and elitist - the latest passing fetish of a certain kind of Hollywood liberal. Indeed, the environmental savings on some of these hybrid vehicles, especially the larger ones, may be fairly illusory. But the trend is now established and within a relatively short period of time the demand for vehicles that work wholly or partly on clean electricity may be mainstream.

It's too bad that the leaders in the EU seem almost oblivious to the public mood and of the need for public officials to take a symbolic lead.

The commission has already wobbled scandalously over Mr Dimas's plans to enforce a reduction of car emissions to an average of 120 grams per kilometre by 2012. It shows every sign of succumbing to bullying from the German car companies to water down the proposals by taking most or much of the onus off the car-makers.

If the row over Mr Dimas's choice of a Toyota Lexus or Prius throws the spotlight back on this shoddy business, it will have been very useful.