Is zero tailpipe emissions by 2040 achievable?

03rd December 2021
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

Proof, if it were needed, of just how complicated “zero carbon emissions” is for car brands to achieve, surfaced at Cop26 in November. The pressure to sign the Glasgow Declaration, an agreement to end global tailpipe emissions by 2040, was immense: which brands wouldn’t have wanted to join Polestar, Ford, Daimler and Jaguar Land Rover on stage for the best PR eco opportunity of the decade, waving the signed declaration in triumph?


But most car brands stood firm, and refused to sign, noticeably Volkswagen, BMW, Toyota and Stellantis, which combines PSA and FCA brands under one huge umbrella. VW and Toyota are the world’s two largest car companies: without them on board, the Glasgow Declaration would be largely redundant. It all seemed to make no sense, even more so given VW’s ambitious electric-car roll-out, which is the most aggressive of any brand. All the refuseniks are seasoned players on the global stage, all understood the value of signing or not signing, all foresaw the howls of outrage from the media, and even more damning corporate speak of “disappointing behaviour” from C-suite executives.

So why didn’t they sign? One word: infrastructure. Look at the responses: Toyota said, “Under our Environmental Challenge 2050 it is our mission to aim for carbon neutrality based on the principles of ‘Mobility for All’ and ‘Leave No One Behind’. To do this, we will provide the most suitable vehicles, including zero emission products, in response to the diverse economic environments, clean energy and charging infrastructure readiness, industrial policies, and customer needs in each country and region”.

BMW’s response was: “We have zero-emission technology ready today. However, BMW is not able to sign the Cop26 document at this point as there remains considerable uncertainty about the development of global infrastructure to support a complete shift to ZEVs, with major disparities across markets”.

In other words, nearly all car brands could have signed the declaration if it had listed each market with a tick box next to it, but to commit to a global elimination of internal-combustion engine cars by 2040 is in no way feasible if the countries themselves won’t commit to the public charging networks to enable that transition. And don’t forget, it wasn’t only China who refused to sign: neither did the world’s second biggest auto market, the USA, or, significantly, Germany. Why would Volkswagen sign, when its own domestic market refused to? VW is still under the shadow of the diesel scandal; another broken promise would spell disaster for public trust in the brand, so to sign a pledge over which the brands ultimately have no control appeared understandably foolhardy for the Germans.


BMW Group went on to spell out its commitment to keeping the hope of a planetary temperature rise cap of 1.5 degrees alive  by stating that two of its three brands – Rolls-Royce and Mini – will build electric-only models from “the early 2030s”, ahead of the 2040 declaration cut-off date, but could not possibly commit BMW to that pledge, given that BMW drivers travel far greater distances  in their cars than owners of the other two brands do, across markets.

It is hard to see, given that Jaguar, Land Rover and Daimler all sell cars in China, how they will stop ICE sales in that country, and other developing markets, but grow market share if the charging network isn’t where it needs to be by 2040.

Given the shot in the dark the declaration therefore appears to be, why did other brands feel able to sign it? Mercedes seems confident that the combined forces of OEM, country, fleet owners, investors and local authorities across all markets can work together to achieve the 2040 end to petrol and diesel new-car sales. Given that, according to their spokesman, “Mercedes-Benz is getting ready to go all electric by the end of the decade, where market conditions allow”, a target date of 2040 for the parts of the world where market conditions currently don’t allow, doesn’t sound impossible. But neither is it guaranteed; perhaps Mercedes figure that, with their impeccable corporate behaviour so far, one broken promise won’t put them under the sort of scrutiny VW has had to suffer. Plus, if they miss the 2040 date, so will every other OEM signatory on the agreement, because it will be due to insufficient market conditions, so no one brand will get the blame.


The whole issue is one of intense data analysis and local-authority commitments, combined with possibly a massive leap of corporate faith. It emphatically is not a straight-forward moral decision, which makes the emotive criticism of activists, that the non-signatories are “on the wrong side of history” look naive. We could do with fewer knee-jerk responses to climate-change pledges in automotive, and a more honest calibration of the damaging realities a lack of commitment to public charging infrastructure implies for all of us.

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