Global warming, climate change – whatever you call it, green issues now seem to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. We are all beginning to think seriously about energy conservation and the rental companies are no exception, going to various lengths to reduce fuel use and cut carbon emissions.

Green cars come in many forms. Some use alternative fuels such as bioethanol, which is alcohol distilled from plants, and biodiesel, which includes fuels produced by the esterification of crops such as sunflower oil, palm oil and soya beans. Liquefied petroleum gas and natural gas are also options but, as with all alternative fuels, sourcing can be a problem.

Electric cars are possibly the most environmentally-friendly solution to motoring and include battery-electric vehicles (BEV), which utilise chemical energy stored in rechargeable battery packs, and fuel-cell electric vehicles (FEV), which run on pure hydrogen. The most practical and popular option so far is electricity-petrol hybrids like the Toyota Prius. This sleek model, which has a consumption of 65.7mpg, was the world’s first and most successful hybrid vehicle – 600,000 have been sold worldwide, and it has recently been finding its way into rental fleets as well as celebrity garages.

While research and development continues into alternative fuels, motor manufacturers are also making huge strides in improving the CO2 performance of their cars, particularly diesel – and it is these cars which are likely to make the biggest contribution to rental-vehicle CO2 reduction in the short term. Several rental companies are also reinforcing their green credentials by off-setting their carbon footprint.

Avis claims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral car rental company and has dedicated one tree for every car in the Avis UK fleet to be planted in UK forests. It has expanded its environmentally friendly fleet in Europe with Avis Scandinavia, Germany and Portugal leading the way. Avis Portugal has had 50 hybrid cars since 2005, which have reduced CO2 emissions by 50 tonnes. Avis Scandinavia impressively operates 400 ethanol-powered Saabs, 75 Ford Flexi-fuels and 20 Toyota Priuses on its fleet. Recently it introduced 19 natural gas Volkswagen Tourans to 15 locations across Germany.

Daniel McCarthy, commercial director of Avis UK, sums up his company’s approach: “The expansion of our environmental offerings across Europe is an important part of our commitment to driving real change in the industry. Our environmental commitment has been palpable since we launched our relationship with the CarbonNeutral Company in 1998 and within the past five years Avis Europe has offset 76,500 tonnes of CO2 through a combination of forestry and climate friendly projects.”

Hertz is also keeping ahead of the pack and has created a Green Collection of 6,200 environmentally-friendly vehicles, which are available in 50 locations across Europe. These cars all have very low CO2 emissions with a maximum of 140g/km and consumption of 40-65mpg. This CO2 figure already matches the EU’s voluntary CO2 output targets for 2008. In the US Hertz already has a green fleet of 35,000 vehicles available at 50 locations.

Bill Jones, vice-president of marketing and sales for Hertz Europe, says: “Hertz takes its commitment to the environment very seriously. In addition we recognise that support for the environment is high on the corporate responsibility agenda for many companies. Hertz has taken the lead in meeting this demand by developing the Green Collection, which is a selection of vehicles that are more environmentally friendly, with lower emissions levels. Customers can now easily choose ‘greener’ vehicles for their journeys.”

Meanwhile, National’s fleet is now 38 per cent diesel. It has reduced the average emissions from 171g/km in 2002 to 158g/km last year, a fall of an amazing 15,000 tonnes of CO2. As part of its efforts for the environment, National has also introduced a “green” collection/delivery service, where scooters are used for the return journey.

Tim Bailey, vice-president fleet of National Car Rental, stresses his company’s commitment: “The environment is at the top of the agenda for National Car Rental. We are tackling this issue on a number of fronts to provide our customers with environmentally friendly road-transport solutions. And we are doing this, not just in terms of the vehicles provided, but by going right to the heart of our day-to-day operations.”

Sixt is another rental provider which has added the Toyota Prius to its fleet, and suggests that eco-conscious consumers make use of its satnav equipment to save unnecessary emissions when taking wrong turnings. The Prius is available from four London locations from £60 per day inclusive.
Neither Budget nor Europcar are yet offering a specifically “green” fleet, but both are reviewing their environmental strategy. Andy Lewis, Budget’s head of marketing and e-commerce, says: “At the present time the overall rental operational costs associated with hybrid-type vehicles makes these commercially difficult to introduce to our core fleet. However, we are keen to understand the demand and general customer acceptance of these types of vehicles within our UK operations. As a result we are considering the trial introduction of a limited number of petrol/electric hybrid type vehicles during 2007.”

Who knows? Before long it may be impossible to rent a car that is not environmentally friendly.