Car emissions and g/km meaning

Free car tax and cheap running costs come with low CO2 emissions. Get all the details here, including the meaning of g/km

BuyaCar team
Aug 16, 2021

Car manufacturers are working hard to reduce the environmental impact of their cars, and one of their most direct ways of achieving this eco-friendly goal is to reduce the amount of emissions coming out of the car's exhaust. This, along with the impending ban on the sale of brand new petrol and diesel cars coming in 2030, is encouraging each and every carmaker to develop zero-emission models.

So, what does that mean for the millions of petrol and diesel cars still on the road today?

Restrictions limiting the use of traditional combustion engines - those that require fuel such as petrol and diesel to work - continue to be rolled out by the government, and these are being gradually tightened as we head towards an emission-free future. The Euro 6 emission standard introduced back in 2015 is just one of those measures, while the likes of the ULEZ and other low emission zones are working to reduce pollution in city centres.

But it's not just the manufacturers that are having to pull their green socks up, drivers are also beginning to have their automotive choices railroaded towards lower-emission options as higher taxes and other costs are now being imposed on petrol and diesel-powered cars producing higher levels of emissions.

The latest road tax rules impose an initial charge on cars registered since April 2017 relative to their exhaust emissions figures, more emissions lead to a higher bill. This can be anything from £10 to £2,135 - check the latest car tax rules  - and is then followed by a continued annual tax cost of £145 thereafter.

The only way to remove the cost of road tax entirely is to drive an electric car that produces zero emissions. But what are emissions? Read on for everything you need to know.

What does g/km mean?

When a petrol or diesel engine burns fuel it produces carbon dioxide (CO2), along with a handful of other harmful gases. This CO2 is then emitted through the car's exhaust pipe. The amount of CO2 a car emits into the atmosphere is measured in grams per kilometre - often shortened to g/km - and is considered to be an indication of a car's impact on the envrionment and air-quality.

Every car that makes its way off of the production is required to undergo a standard laboratory test (WLTP), which calculates the density of its carbon dioxide emissions. This is a legal requirement, and should be clearly stated for every car, so you should always be able to find a car's emissions figures without too much difficulty.

In general, the lower this figure, the less fuel that a vehicle uses: a car with 90g/km CO2, should have good fuel economy. One with 180g/km CO2 or more will use a lot of fuel. So consumers looking to reduce their running costs ought to be looking out for cars with fewer emissions.

CO2 emissions in g/km and car tax

The impact that CO2 emissions have on your car tax will depend on how old it is.

Pre-April 2017 cars

Vehicles that were on the road before April 2017 have tax rates that are calculated entirely according to their CO2 emissions. Any car with an official rating of under 100g/km CO2 is exempt from car tax. These include cars with efficient petrol and diesel engines, as well as the rising numbers of electric car and hybrid vehicles, which combine an electric motor with a petrol or diesel engine for improved economy.

Cars emitting more than 100g/km CO2 pay tax on a sliding scale from £20 a year to £555. The amount depends on which tax band that they fall into. Each band is a range of CO2 emissions (eg 101-110g/km CO2).

Cars registered after April 2017

Newer cars, registered after April 2017, are taxed under an entirely different system. The first year of tax - when a car is brand new - is based on CO2 emissions. It's easy to overlook because it's normally included in a car's purchase price, but it can add substantially to your car's cost.

There are 13 tax bands, based on CO2 emissions, ranging from 0 (for electric cars), where tax is free, to over 255g/km, which costs £2,070. An average car will incur a tax rate of £165.

Diesel cars are penalised under this system and are pushed up a band, to make the cost of taxing them greater.

After the first year, drivers pay a flat rate of £140 each year. Only vehicles with no CO2 emissions from their exhaust - those powered by electricity or hydrogen - are exempt; if your car had a list price of £40,000 or more when new, you'll be charged an additional £310 wealth tax from the second to sixth year it is on the road.

CO2 emissions in g/km and company car tax

Choosing a vehicle with low CO2 emissions can save hundreds - or even thousands - of pounds in company car tax. Cars with low g/km CO2 ratings are placed in lower company car tax bands, reducing the level of tax that drivers pay.

CO2 emissions in g/km and congestion charge

Cars emitting less than 75g/km CO2, which were first registered after January 1, 2011, are curently exempt from the London congestion charge. All electric cars are able to avoid the charge too, as long as the fuel type, listed on their V5C registration document is 'electric'.

Electric vehicle owners are still not able to simply drive into the capital and avoid payment: first you'll need to register your vehicle with Transport for London (TfL), the body that manages the charge. TfL requires a copy of your car's registration document and charges a £10 fee for registration, which needs to be paid each year.

How to find a car’s g/km CO2 figure

Car brochures - online and paper versions - carry full details of the CO2 emissions of each car. If you’re looking on BuyaCar, you can see the emissions figure for any vehicle by viewing its technical specification.

A car’s CO2 figure can be affected if you fit larger wheels, or choose a version with four-wheel drive or an automatic gearbox, for example. In some cases, you might find that the difference pushes your car into a different tax bracket.

Is petrol or diesel better for g/km CO2?

Diesel cars are more efficient than petrol versions, as they are able to get more energy out of each litre of fuel. This means that they generally have lower CO2 emission levels, making them cheaper to tax. As they use less fuel, they are often cheaper to run as well, although they can be more expensive to buy in the first place: knowing whether to choose petrol or diesel isn’t always straightforward.

For more than a decade, diesel cars have benefitted from lower car tax rates, thanks to their efficiency. This has helped to boost their popularity, but has also increased the level of other dangerous pollutants in the atmosphere, which are mainly produced by diesel engines. this policy has now been reversed, with the changes in the first-year tax rate that penalise diesel cars.

Are car CO2 emissions dangerous?

CO2 is not a direct risk to human health in the same way as other exhaust gases including nitrogen oxides and tiny pieces of soot called particulates. But it is a greenhouse gas and its contribution to global warming is the reason why governments across the world are forcing car manufacturers to lower CO2 emissions.

Reducing emissions from British vehicles is a major part of the government's plan to cut greenhouse gases in an effort to ensure that global warming does not cause temperature rises of more than 2C higher than pre-industral levels.

New emissions test: how CO2 emissions are calculated

CO2 emissions are calculated in an official testing procedure that is now unified across the world, called the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP). The tests are conducted in a laboratory and are designed to better reflect how cars are driven in the real world than the previous test, which dated back to the 1980s.

The WLTP test is divided into four parts with different average speeds: low, medium, high and extra high to replicate city, urban, countryside and motorway driving. Each part contains a variety of driving phases, stops, acceleration and braking phases.

Cheating the emissions test to lower g/km CO2

The recent VW emissions scandal centred on the amount of harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) produced by diesel-powered cars. But it also highlighted serious issues with the European tests that are used to calculate CO2 emissions, along with emissions of other pollutants and each car’s official fuel economy figure.

The laboratory test (above) was designed decades ago for cars that didn’t have the power or equipment of modern models. The test also contains leeway for manufacturers to legally optimise their cars for the test, including charging up the car's battery to 100% and inflating tyres to high pressures.

It means that emissions and fuel consumption in the real world can be considerably higher than in the laboratory test.


Latest jargon busters

  1. Electric car glossary: jargon busting kWh and more

  2. What is horsepower?

  3. What is voice control?