Vehicles of progress - gas them up

Europe's tough environmental laws are driving car manufacturers to find cleaner ways of travel. One solution that is becoming popular is compressed natural gas – a cheaper fuel that is less damaging to the environment.

Road transport is the EU's biggest pollution headache, causing a quarter of a million premature deaths every year. It wants to cut carbon emissions by a fifth by 2020. Analysts say the only realistic way to do that is to switch to natural gas.

In the rich fields near the Italian Alps, driver Giorgio saves money and does his bit for the environment by running his truck on Compressed Natural Gas – or CNG. It is much cheaper than petrol, emits less carbon monoxide and no particulates – which are produced by oil exhausts and turns sunsets grey and lungs black.

Europe’s most polluted city Milan has joined Stockholm and London in making petrol-driven cars pay to enter the city center. CNG cars, on the other hand, do not need to pay.

Strict new European Union health targets are putting natural gas in the driving seat. Engineers planning the next generation of cars say they have picked a winner.

According to Professor Ennio Macchi from Milan’s Polytechnic Energy Department, “natural gas is the easiest and less costly way to reach this target.”

Europe’s top natural gas automaker is Fiat. Last year, it sold 120,000 such cars in Italy alone. Many models now have gas versions. The drawback is that there are relatively few CNG filling stations.

Fiat believes Russian energy giant Gazprom can fix that.

“Gazprom is sponsoring a project named ‘Blue Corridor’ for the development of a network of filling stations around Europe. This project is endorsed by the European Commission. Recently, on April 28, there was the adoption from the European Commission of the so-called Communication on Clean and Efficient Vehicles, in which CNG is part of future mobility,” Fiat’s Senior Vice-President Daniele Chiari says.

Ecologists warn that major oil companies such as Shell are lobbying the EU to scrap climate change goals, but a growing number of drivers have already made up their minds.