Car industry accused of ‘greenwashing’ as we wait for electric revolution

Car-makers ‘desperate to show off green credentials’ but are ‘miles away’ from target

For everyone thinking that cars are now all electric (or at least hybrid), I have some news for you. Well, some statistics – to be more accurate. Even though electric car sales are rising, and rising fast, the fact is they are not the biggest selling cars on the Irish market. Nope, that accolade (if that’s quite the right word) is still taken by diesel. Of the 61,000 new cars sold so far this year, 36 per cent of them came with a diesel engine. Petrol power is in second position, with 31 per cent, followed by hybrid (non-plug-in) on 12 per cent. Fully-electric cars only account for 3.56 per cent of new car sales in 2021.

Perhaps, then, it’s little surprise that influential environmental think-tank Transport & Environment (T&E) is accusing car-makers of “greenwashing” and saying that they’re simply not pushing hard enough to meet the European Union’s targets of reducing emissions from transport and switching cars to electric power.

"Car-makers are desperate to show off their green credentials, but the reality is most of them are miles away from where they need to be. Even those that are ambitious lack a suitable strategy to get there. Car-makers have failed to deliver on their promises before, who says this time will be different?" Julia Poliscanova, senior director for vehicles and e-mobility at T&E, told The Irish Times.

"There is no longer any doubt that a fossil fuel-free, all-electric future is possible. But with only two car-makers close to where Europe needs to go, policymakers can't leave it to car-makers to get there on their own. Targets need to be gradually tightened so that car-makers not only commit to phasing out fossil fuels, but develop a strategy that gets them there on time."


Those two car-makers are Volkswagen and Volvo, which according to T&E both score 70 marks out of 100 on its "EV-Readiness Index". Renault and Hyundai-Kia lag a little behind, with between 50 and 60 points out of 100, while Stellantis, Daimler, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover and BMW score between 40 and 50 points. Toyota, somewhat surprisingly, scores the worst, with just 35 points. "Stellantis, Daimler, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota rank the worst with low short-term battery electric (BEV) sales, no ambitious phase-out targets, no clear industrial strategy and an over-reliance, in the case of BMW, Daimler and Toyota, on hybrids. Toyota has not set a target for 2030 and it plans to produce just 10 per cent BEVs in 2025. It is expected to rely on polluting hybrid technologies," said T&E's report.

Electric vehicle production

According to T&E’s numbers, production of electric vehicles in Europe (and that’s fully-electric, not including hybrid and plug-in hybrid) will hit the million mark this year (which would be about 7.4 per cent of total vehicle production) and rise to 3.3 million units in 2025. By 2030 T&E expects sales of battery-electric cars to exceed those of internal-combustion cars for the first time, with a projected 6.7 million sales figure, which would be 50.2 per cent of the market.

T&E's concern is that, even if all of the major car-makers hit their electric car targets, it could still leave the market about 10 per cent short of where it should be by 2030. Ford, taken as an example by T&E, has announced plans to go fully electric by 2030, but only has one electric model – the Mustang Mach-E – on sale, and plans for only 13 per cent of its production to be electric by 2025. Likewise, Fiat has recently announced that it too will only build electric cars by 2030, but it only has one – the most expensive version of the 500 small car – on sale, and may well find it difficult to bring together expensive electric power with its traditional image as a maker of small, affordable cars. Fiat brand chief executive Olivier François has acknowledged that the price of electric cars, and their batteries, will have to be tackled as it's a significant "barrier" for buyers.

‘Major improvement’

Toyota, though, has hit back at criticism, especially in light of its performance in the Irish market. Toyota is the best-selling car brand in Ireland, and has four models in the top-10 best-seller list. Some 91 per cent of those sales are hybrid-powered.

Michael Gaynor, Toyota Ireland's marketing director, told The Irish Times: "Toyota's immediate focus is to move the mass market out of diesel passenger cars and into low-emitting hybrid vehicles, which we believe represent a major improvement over pure fossil fuel motoring, both in improving our health and environmental outlook. Motorists should take comfort in the fact that WLTP now provides the transparency that was missing from the motoring industry in the past and attempts at greenwashing won't be possible as the numbers speak for themselves.

“The indisputable facts are that in health terms, our self-charging hybrids have 90 per cent less harmful NOx than diesel passenger cars in a time when Ireland’s diesel penetration is the highest in Europe, and from an environmental perspective, the hybrids we have sold in Ireland in 2019 and 2020 alone will have reduced 100,000 tonnes of CO2 from the environment over the course of their lifecycle. And looking further at CO2, our emissions average is 86.83g/km, which is much lower than the CAFE [corporate average fuel economy] regulations require.

“Also, some of our new-generation hybrids including the new Yaris and the Toyota C-HR have on-board EV monitors so drivers can see for themselves how much time they are driving with zero emissions incurring. In a study carried out by UCD academics in 2019, it showed that hybrids spend on average 62 per cent of the time in zero-emissions mode. There are many other fact-based studies run by third-party academics which reflect the low-emitting virtues of Toyota hybrids and we have always been very transparent about providing access to the data we reference and will continue to do so.”

Toyota has recently shown off its first concept of an electric crossover model for Europe and, in the shape of the Lexus UX300e, already has one fully-electric model on sale here. The company has long said that it wants to see a breakthrough in “solid-state” battery technology (safer, more energy storage, faster recharging) before it commits to an all-electric future, and it’s still pushing heavily on the hydrogen-fuel option, having just launched its second-generation Mirai hydrogen car.

Plug-in hybrids

T&E's most scathing comments, though, were aimed at plug-in hybrids (PHEVs). "In terms of PHEVs, we published a study in November last year after testing three of the most popular PHEVs sold in 2019: a BMW X5 – longest EV-range PHEV available – a Volvo XC60 and the Mitsubishi Outlander.

"We found that on-road emissions are on average 2-4 times higher – up to eight times in engine mode – than their official CO2 values. This is largely due to their poor design, small batteries, underpowered electric motors and no fast charging that make it hard for users to drive predominantly in zero-emission mode. Basically, plug-in hybrids are fake electric cars," said Alex Keynes, clean vehicles manager with T&E. "They're built for lab tests and tax breaks, not real driving. Our tests show that even in optimal conditions, with a full battery, the cars pollute more than advertised. Unless you drive them softly, carbon emissions can go off the charts."

Many car-makers have pinned their hopes on PHEVs, though, seeing them as a bridging technology between conventional cars and fully-electric models, giving motorists the reassurance of liquid-fuel power for longer journeys, and the ability to run on electric power for shorter hops.

According to Richard Molloy of Audi Ireland: "Ireland has ambitious climate action targets to hit by 2030. Transport plays an important role in meeting these overall targets. If we are to achieve anywhere near the ambitious targets for electric vehicles on the road by 2030, we need to see growth in the overall new car market.

“Vehicle replacement is the only way we can move to a greener car fleet. Customers need clarity and certainty of the incentives to move to cleaner technology to encourage fleet renewal. Customers also need to see the investment commitment into improving the national charging network.

“A clear roadmap for the transition to a cleaner national car fleet needs to be looked at in totality. The transition to a completely electric car fleet is incremental. The purchase of clean petrol and diesel cars, PHEVs and electric cars combined will all have a part of play in the transition to a carbon neutral fleet between now and 2030.”