European politicians may legally require automakers to reduce CO2 emissions by 27 percent by 2012 -- if carmakers fail to keep their promise.
European environment ministers discussed the option during a quarterly Environment Council meeting in Luxembourg last month.
The Council is the main decision-making body in Brussels. It guides the European Commission, which in turn is responsible for drafting detailed proposals.
So far, the CO2 reduction goals are voluntary and "the voluntary reduction is our preference," said Dutch Environment Secretary Pieter van Geel, who chaired the Luxembourg meeting. "But if necessary, we may enforce it with fiscal or legal measurements."
ACEA -- the European automakers association -- and Japanese and Korean automakers pledged to cut average fleet emissions to 140 grams per kilometer by 2008 (2009 for the Asian brands) and 120g/km by 2012 (2013 for Asians).
The CO2 level in 2002 was 165g/km, according to ACEA figures, up one gram from 2001.
Van Geel said Commissioners may also "include light commercial vehicles in the 120g/km target."
Some scientists blame heightening levels of CO2, a greenhouse gas, for global warming.
In October 2003, Renault CEO Louis Schweitzer, then ACEA chairman, said 120g/km by 2012 is an "unreasonable" target. Carmakers argue that consumers shun low-fuel consumption vehicles, and that the investment required to attain the 120g/km CO2 level is prohibitive.
Departing EU Vice President Loyola de Palacio told Automotive News Europe that 2012 may be too early.
"Targets must be ambitious but realistic," she said during the Michelin Challenge Bibendum event last month in Shanghai. "We should give carmakers time to make their technological investments pay off."
– Sylviane de Saint-Seine contributed