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Driving Towards Disaster: The Car Manufacturers Undermining Climate Action

Thomas Perrett reports on new evidence suggesting that the actions of the automotive sector doesn’t match its rhetoric on climate change

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Driving Towards DisasterThe Car Manufacturers Undermining Climate Action

Thomas Perrett reports on new evidence suggesting that the actions of the automotive sector doesn’t match its rhetoric on climate change

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The production strategies pursued by the world’s largest car manufacturers represent a “major blockage” to policies intended to address the climate crisis, according to a recent report.

Research carried out by think tank InfluenceMap has found that the global automotive sector will have to increase the production of zero emissions vehicles by 80% between 2029 and 2030 to meet the 1.5 degree global warming target set by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Just two of the 12 largest car manufacturers in the world, Tesla and Mercedes Benz, are set to adequately develop electric car fleets. 

The report, which gave eight out of the 12 companies climate policy engagement scores of 40% or lower, concluded that a significant distinction could be found between automakers’ rhetorical commitments to decarbonisation and their unwillingness to accelerate the production of electric vehicles in lieu of petrol cars.

It noted that “the sector’s climate policy engagement is characterised by high-level supportive statements for climate action, contrasted with strategic opposition to regulations to phase out internal combustion engines”.

InfluenceMap’s study criticised the failures of major car companies to align their policies with targets set by reputable organisations including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose Working Group III report, published in 2019, found that “meeting climate mitigation goals would require transformative changes in the transport sector”.

Indeed, the IPCC concluded that emissions from vehicles had grown faster than in other sectors and on current trajectory would increase by up to 50% by 2050.


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Petrol Predominates

The IPCC report, which outlined the urgency of the decarbonisation of transport, implied that merely increasing the production of electric vehicles would be insufficient in addressing the scale of the auto sector’s emissions, a task which would require internal combustion engines to be substantially phased out.

The IEA confirmed that to meet net zero targets by 2050, zero emissions vehicles would have to comprise 57.5% of new, light-duty car sales.

Yet, according to InfluenceMap, despite zero emissions vehicles having comprised 5.9% of all global sales in 2021, doubling the previous year’s figures, car manufacturers showed no signs of making petrol or diesel vehicles obsolete.

Using forecasted production data from automotive data supplier IHS Markit, InfluenceMap’s report argued that “despite increased support for electric vehicle subsidies and incentives, automakers continue to advocate against stringent regulations enforcing rapid electric vehicle adoption in line with the Paris Agreement”.

Indeed, the report predicted that, in 2029, 68% of light-duty vehicles would still be powered by internal combustion engines, while just 32% would be battery-electric, and 0.1% would be powered by still-embryonic hydrogen technology.

Climate policy engagement was weakest among auto manufacturers whose commitment to zero emissions vehicle production remained sluggish; Toyota and Nissan had the lowest levels of climate policy engagement, with zero emissions vehicles predicted to comprise just 14% and 22% of their vehicle fleets respectively by 2029.

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The report found that only three of the 12 largest automakers in the world had signed a pledge at COP26 to phase out the sale of new gasoline and diesel powered vehicles globally by 2040 and by 2035 in leading markets. 

InfluenceMap programme manager Ben Youriev believes that only stringent emissions targets can incentivise the auto sector to divest from heavily polluting vehicles.

He told Byline Times that “the most effective way to ensure auto manufacturers stop producing high-emitting combustion engine vehicles is through ambitious government climate regulation, for example enforcing stricter emissions and fuel economy standards aligned with global climate targets”.

“Without a significant global ramp up in climate regulation for the sector, which many global automakers are actively lobbying to delay and weaken, the sector will likely not decarbonise in line with the Paris Agreement’s key goals,” he added.

Lobbying Against Change

InfluenceMap discovered a pronounced divergence between the theoretical support professed by many leading auto manufacturers for a significant increase in the sale of zero emissions vehicles, and the realities of pernicious industry lobbying, where trade associations representing car manufacturers have advocated for emissions targets to be significantly weakened.

The report argued that “globally, automakers have used their associations to aggressively push back against… emissions standards, ZEV mandates, and ICE phase-out policies in 2020-22, typically taking more negative climate policy positions than the individual companies,” suggesting that representatives of the auto industry had “strategically used their associations to distance themselves from their sector’s more negative engagement”.

Climate policy engagement was weakest in the areas of the world with the most active industry lobbying campaigns.

Manufacturers based in Japan and the US had the lowest levels of climate engagement. The three automakers with the lowest proportion of forecast zero emissions vehicles (Toyota with 14%, Honda Motor with 18%, and Nissan with 22%) were all based in Japan, where Akio Toyoda, chair of lobbying group the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, had opposed a nation-wide phase out of petrol vehicles at a press conference in April 2021.

Meanwhile, in the US, which still lags behind Europe in advancing the production of electric vehicles, lobbyists continue to exert significant influence. The report found that, on current trajectory, just 35% of light-duty-vehicles produced in the US would be zero-emissions vehicles by 2029, 33% would be driven by internal combustion engines, and 32% would be hybrids. 

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Extensive industry lobbying has stymied the US auto industry’s movement on climate change. Analysis by DeSmog revealed that, in March 2018, a series of organisations with ties to the the Koch brothers – two hard-right billionaire political funders – had pressured Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt to relax greenhouse gas limits for personal vehicles.

Consequently, SUVs and other notoriously high-polluting commercial vehicles are estimated by InfluenceMap’s report to make up 83% of all US-manufactured vehicles by 2029. SUV production was highlighted by the aforementioned IPCC report as one of the primary drivers of emissions from the auto sector, as the size and weight of such vehicles meant that even with decarbonisation metrics in place, the merits of installing zero emissions technology could be outweighed by the carbon-intensive production techniques required to produce vehicles of this size.

Indeed, it has been estimated that globally, SUVs would comprise 47% of all vehicle sales by 2029, up from 39% in 2020.

InfluenceMap’s report has exposed the failures of the world’s largest car manufacturers to align themselves with crucial net zero emissions targets, taking aim at the complex network of industry lobbyists and associations which covertly advocate for the dilution of emissions targets and other climate policies, while automakers publicly feign a commitment to decarbonisation.

While progress has undoubtedly been made on the production of zero emissions vehicles, this alone is insufficient. As long as petrol cars remain in the production pipeline, and auto manufacturers remain reluctant to divest from them, the auto industry will continue to be complicit in climate breakdown. 

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