Seeing forests through the haze: Europe agrees on auto fume pact

A European Community car-exhaust compromise, hammered out last week, leaves it up to member nations to decide whether to use existing catalytic converters (Bonn's preferred solution) or still-to-be-developed ``lean-burn'' engines (London's preferred solution). The agreement also leaves moot the question of who won in the marathon negotiations, which ended March 21 after an all-night bargaining session.

And it's still a moot point how soon the intended beneficiaries, the forests, will actually profit from the new ``American'' emission standards.

Partial answers should be available by the time EC environment ministers pin down technical prescriptions in June.

But the end result must be such that the effect on the European environment will be equivalent to that produced by United States standards. US ceilings per test are three grams of nitrogen oxides or three grams of hydrocarbons -- the pollutants believed to be the most damaging to trees -- and 15 grams of carbon monoxide. Europe may accept higher emission rates for carbon monoxide.

All new European autos must conform to these standards on a sliding timetable from October 1988 through October 1994. Large engines of 2,000 cubic centimeters or more must be clean by 1988 (for new models) and 1989 (for all new cars, including those coming off earlier production lines). Medium-size engines of 1,400 to 2,000 cc must comply by 1991 (new models) and 1993 (new cars); small engines under 1,400 cc by 1990/91 for a halfway ``first stage'' and possibly 1993/94 for the final, still-to-be-negotiated ``second stage.''

In West Germany -- the country that has been fighting for tougher emission controls for two years -- the reaction to all the horsepower trading is mixed. Manufacturers of luxury autos like the Mercedes and the BMW don't expect any blips on their sales charts from the perhaps 1,000-mark (about $310) additional cost for catalytic converters.

The conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union, which has championed new exhaust standards through its Interior Minister Friedrich Zimmermann, hails the EC agreement as a victory. The conservative government's small coalition partner of the Free Democratic Party -- which represents small-business interests -- also welcomes the agreement and advertises its own role in persuading Dr. Zimmermann to compromise.

West German manufacturers of medium-sized autos, by contrast, are still grumbling about the uncertainty of the past two years that led to the lowest car-purchase figures in a decade in the first two months of this year. They are glad that Zimmermann's threat to go it alone won't take effect and lead to a bruising trade war, however. They are gearing up for resumed sales now that predictability has been restored and they are hoping to benefit from West Germany's new tax breaks for ``environment friendly'' cars. Coming into effect on July 1, tax benefits will amount to 2,200 marks (about $680) over three years for medium-size cars, 750 marks (about $230) for small cars.

The opposition Greens and Social Democrats criticize the EC compromise as too lax. The Greens have called the regulation a ``death sentence for German forests.'' The Social Democrats have branded the results ``miserable and terrible'' and say they burden the environment, the driver, and the automaker alike.

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