EVs 'offset by SUVs'

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To decarbonise transport we need to escape the false promise of the car advert.

What encapsulates our backwards priorities more than telling public transport users that they would be better off in a car?

There is an urgent need to decarbonise road transport, which is responsible for 26 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The advertising of major car companies would have us believe the answer lies in a wholesale shift to electric vehicles (EVs), and sales data for EVs suggests the public agrees. 

But behind the flashy ads lies a different story: manufacturers continue to rely on sales of petrol and diesel vehicles including the most polluting sports utility vehicles (SUVs). 


In a new briefing paper from Badvertising, we argue that whilst electrification is a necessary part of decarbonising road transport, EVs are not the silver bullet solution they are often marketed to be. 

We need to rapidly reduce the total number of cars on the road, replacing the private motor vehicle with equitable public transport and active travel. As a key part of this we need to stop promoting the problem and introduce tobacco-style bans on advertising for the most polluting transport options.

Adverts for EVs are everywhere today as car makers race to reinvent themselves as ‘green’ leaders. Yet an analysis from 2022 found that whilst over half of the adverts for Peugeot, Citroen, Jeep and Fiat touted green credentials, only one in eight cars sold were low-emission or EVs. 

Of all car makers, none have dined out on their reputation for being ‘green’ as much as Toyota. From the launch of the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid, in 1997, Toyota has promoted itself as a leader of sustainable transport. 

However, to date Toyota only produces one fully electric vehicle, the bZ4X, and in total hybrids - which still rely on fossil fuels - make up just 20 per cent of the company’s total vehicle sales.


Meanwhile, Toyota’s production of petrol and diesel cars is predicted to overshoot Paris Agreement-aligned targets for new production by as much as 184 per cent

However, EVs alone are insufficient to deliver the level of decarbonisation, despite their impressive growth. Even under the most optimistic forecasts, EVs will only deliver a 70 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 when compared to a business-as-usual scenario.

What encapsulates our backwards priorities more than telling public transport users that they would be better off in a car?

Then there’s the elephant in the room: Sports Utility Vehicles. 

As EV sales have grown, so too has the sale of large, energy inefficient - but more profitable - SUVs and 4x4s. In 2021, 45 percent of EVs sold in the UK were SUVs whilst globally, in 2022, electric SUVs accounted for over half of EV sales. 

Even as they have shifted to EVs, Volkswagen boasts of their increased SUV sales, now at 45 per cent of European sales and the manufacturer’s fastest growing segment. 


For Toyota, 41 per cent of their hybrid sales are SUVs with the hulking RAV4 hybrid (emissions 143gCO2/km) outselling the famous Prius by a factor of 11 in 2021. 

Why is this an issue? A study conducted this year found that electric SUVs may in fact increase overall CO2 emissions because of their outsized demand for rare resources like the materials required to manufacture batteries. 

SUVs are also bigger emitters of health-endangering fine particulate matter, PM2.5. While smaller lightweight EVs emit less PM2.5 than petrol and diesel vehicles, heavier battery electric SUVs emit up to 8 percent more PM2.5 than their fossil-fuelled counterparts.

Short-term exposure to PM2.5 has been associated with premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for lung problems, acute bronchitis, and asthma attacks. Long-term exposure has been linked to strokes, cancer, respiratory infections and even dementia.

So what’s the solution?


We support the shift from petrol and diesel cars to battery EVs where necessary. The key word being necessary because the simple fact is that so much of our current car use is unnecessary.

A dependence on cars is a consequence of years of bias towards private vehicles in planning, infrastructure and urban design fed by a promotional culture that sets the car as the ultimate symbol of freedom, independence, virility and success.  

The seamless metamorphosis from petrol and diesel cars to EVs presented in car makers’ advertising uncritically assumes the continued dominance of the private car as the de facto mode of transport in society. 

It is a regular sight to see cars advertised in bus shelters. What encapsulates our backwards priorities more than telling public transport users that they would be better off in a car? 

This is where local authorities can act by implementing local ad bans on advertising sites they own - including bus stops. Ethical advertising policies are catching on as more councils recognise the role advertising plays in driving demand for many harmful products from SUVs to junk food. 


At a national level, introducing a tobacco-style ban on high-carbon advertising, including for all SUVs, regardless of fuel type, as well as other high carbon travel options like flying, would send a clear signal to the public that the reign of the car is over. 

In the meantime, the UK’s advertising regulator, the ASA, could be strengthened to crack down on auto industry greenwash and the present trend of car makers promoting their green credentials whilst obscuring their continued reliance on fossil fuels. 

Car advertising has long associated the private motor vehicle with freedom and unbridled mobility. Whilst there are many benefits to car ownership, in the context of the climate emergency they simply cannot be said to outweigh the harms. 

A wholesale shift from internal combustion engines to EVs, and especially hybrids, will not solve the climate crisis, it will simply make things worse more slowly.

If we are to truly decarbonise transport, at the same time as making it fairer and more accessible for everyone, we need to escape the world of the car ad and move beyond the private motor vehicle. 

This Author

James Ward is a campaigner with AdFree Cities.