The policy was adopted Monday by the commission, making official a feature of the European Union's 2008 legislation requiring that, by 2015, CO2 emissions from all new cars cannot exceed 130 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer driven -- a figure about one-fifth less than 2007 levels.
Car manufacturers that outfit new vehicles with such eco-innovations will be eligible for up to 7 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer toward the target, the EC said.
Just what will constitute an "eco-innovation" will be determined by the commission, which said it "will assess applications submitted by car manufacturers and component suppliers and adopt decisions approving generic eco-innovations."
It has set parameters, however. It says a technology can qualify as an eco-innovation if it is new to the market, contributes to "significant" CO2 savings and isn't taken into account in some other way toward the 130-gram limit.
Also, the commission said, the technology should "aim at improving vehicle propulsion or the energy consumption of devices that are mandatory, without compromising vehicle safety."
This means, for example, that solar panels could potentially qualify as an eco-innovation but an in-car music system wouldn't just because it may be energy efficient.
The EU car emission legislation will be phased in. By next year, 65 percent of each manufacturer's newly registered cars must comply, while that figure rises to 75 percent by 2013, to 80 percent in 2014 and 100 percent by 2015.
Starting next year, automakers whose fleet average exceeds the limit will have to pay a penalty for each car registered.
European and Japanese car manufacturers asked for the eco-innovation credits, as well as the phased-in timeline, when the CO2 legislation was being formulated.
The European Automobile Manufacturers Association says it is working on a series of initiatives that could tap the eco-innovation credit.
"The European automotive industry has identified multiple categories for eco-innovative car technologies," the group said in a statement, including systems and components, running resistance, well-to-wheel efficiency, smart navigation and driver information.
"All categories contain numerous technology applications, from adaptive cruise-control and super-efficient LED lights to robotized gearboxes and the storage and re-use of heat."
The incentive for auto industry eco-innovations comes at a time when small and medium-sized European manufacturers and other businesses (known as SMEs) say they're turning to them as a means to cope with the high cost and scarcity of material resources.
A Eurobarometer survey released at the 10th European Forum on Eco-Innovation in March indicated that 56 percent of European SMEs are purchasing more efficient technologies as means to cope, while 53 percent were developing in-house efficient technologies and 52 percent were practicing recycling.
"What we are seeing is certainly a change in the right direction, but we need to move from evolution to revolution in our attitude to resources," European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said. "A more efficient use of resources is a must for businesses."