Image of a car advert with text reading "powered by electricity" overwritten by text reading "fossil fuels"

Accelerating greenwash leaves regulation in the rearview mirror

Whether by switching to electric or simply driving less, more and more people are trying to reduce the carbon emissions from their car. However, electric vehicle advertising risks hindering, rather than helping, people make the greenest choice, and the ad regulator seems to be making things worse. 

On February 7, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned two car adverts, one from BMW and one from MG Motors, for making misleading green claims. Whilst normally we’d be thrilled to see car ads censured, these ones gave us pause for thought. 

The reason for the ban was that both ads used the phrase “zero emission vehicle” to refer to a battery electric car. The ASA argued that – without qualification – this was misleading as a battery EV is only “zero emissions” when driven; its production may not be zero emissions at all. 

Zero emissions 

Now, the ASA isn’t exactly wrong here. Absolute environmental claims ought to be qualified and clarified where necessary (like separating driving emissions from manufacturing emissions). However, the fact is that “zero emissions” is in fact a far more useful and truthful way to differentiate between the plethora of electric and electrified vehicles now available on the market. Recent years have seen an explosion of hybrids, full hybrids, dual hybrids, PHEVs, MHEVs, BEVs, FCEVs and other acronyms and jargon seemingly designed to confuse drivers. No wonder public confusion about electric vehicles is so high. 

Drawing a clean binary between those vehicles which have zero exhaust emissions (such as battery EVs and fuel cell EVs) and those that do not (all hybrids and traditional internal combustion engines) is simple and easy to understand, helping drivers choose those vehicles that make the biggest positive difference to the environment. 

It’s true that EVs still contribute to air pollution from their tyres and brakes, which wear down over time causing particulate pollution to enter the air. However, this is true of all cars, and a shift to smaller vehicles for necessary journeys combined with a prioritisation of active travel and public transport is ultimately the solution (as car adverts in France now make clear with mandatory green messages).

Graphic illustrating exhaust emissions from different types of electric and electrified vehicles.

Moreover, the language of “zero emission vehicles” is now baked into UK law thanks to the Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which stipulates minimum proportions of zero emission vehicles carmakers must sell each year, rising to 100 percent by 2035. For the ASA to so readily rap carmakers for using in their advertising the very term used by the government in legislation is at best unhelpful and at worst actively contributing to wider misinformation about electric vehicles. 

EV misinformation is rife

The House of Lords Climate Change Committee recently called on the government to do more to tackle rampant electric vehicle misinformation in national newspapers. Mentioned in the committee hearing was an opinion piece written for The Guardian by actor Rowan Atkinson in which he called EVs “soulless” and questioned their lifetime carbon emissions savings. (Atkinson’s article was later fact checked by Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans.)  

The committee’s call came as many media outlets were crowing over Toyota yet again being crowned the world’s biggest carmaker, in part thanks to its dominance of the hybrid market. For the last few years, even as other carmakers have begun to switch to battery electric vehicles (BEVs), Toyota has steadfastly refused to do so, with leading figures like chairman Akio Toyoda insisting that BEVs are a fad and (falsely) asserting that hybrids offer greater potential to decarbonise transport. 

Screenshot from The Telegraph showing a headline about Toyota.

Public demand for less polluting cars is clear, as sales top one million and counting. Even hybrid sales are motivated by a desire amongst drivers to reduce fossil fuel use. In this context, advertising and selling a hybrid over a BEV is a comparative claim, and yet crucial information – like that a BEV will emit 8.7 times less CO2 over a lifetime and save the owner thousands of pounds compared to a hybrid – is missing from hybrid advertising. 

Which is what makes the recent ASA rulings against BMW and MG Motors so confounding. Advertising a battery electric vehicle as “zero emissions” is prohibited, but advertising hybrids whilst obscuring their real world emissions figures is allowed. This is an entirely backwards way of doing things and in the long run will only hurt car owners’ pockets and make net zero goals harder to achieve. 

Advertising regulation needs to catch up

The number of car journeys taken overall needs to drastically fall. But where cars are necessary, the environmental benefits of battery electric vehicles over hybrids and petrol/diesel cars are well established. Now with the ZEV mandate in place, all vehicles sold in the UK from 2035 will need to be fully electric. 

Advertising regulation has yet to catch up to this reality. At present, regulation of electric vehicle marketing maintains a narrow focus on technicalities such as battery range claims, blinding the ASA to the wider context of the shifting electric and electrified vehicle market. If the purpose of electric and hybrid vehicles is to cut emissions, then advertising for any such vehicle is inherently a green claim and ought to be subject to the ASA’a extensive green guidance. However, all too often, this isn’t the case and the door is left open to carmakers to indulge in all kinds of greenwash advertising.

The ASA could start by encouraging carmakers to simplify their ads. Drop confusing terminology like “self-charging hybrid” and instead adopt the clear binary of zero/non-zero exhaust emissions (properly qualified, of course). Doing so would drastically reduce the space for greenwash in car advertising and make choosing a greener option easier for drivers.

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