The race is on to build a truly carbon-neutral car

06th July 2022
erin_baker_headshot.jpg Erin Baker

Marie Claire, the women’s fashion and lifestyle magazine, announces the winners of its annual Sustainability Awards next month and I’ve been judging the automotive entries. Brands must demonstrate a green initiative that has benefited people and planet, and been disruptive (in a positive sense). There is also an award for the best electric car that must also have demonstrated something new and exciting in its development that will benefit the planet and society. A tall ask, and the shortlist would be very short indeed if I was presenting this award five years ago. But now look where we are: there are some incredible ideas breaking through the rigours of what a production cycle demands. Car brands are responding to increasing consumer analysis of their carbon footprints.


At the 2022 Goodwood Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard, I overheard some women in Electric Avenue scoffing at the idea that electric cars were in any way good for the planet “given the manufacturing process”, and one might well have to agree. The astonishing thing is to hear members of the public talking in such informed ways now about the manufacture of their cars. For the majority of consumers, the well-to-wheel environmental impact of their fossil-fuelled cars would never have crossed their minds.

A slap on the back, then, for Polestar, Kia and Volvo (Kia sandwiched between two Geely brands there) in the brand category. Without letting anything slip about the winner, all three are making remarkably quick headway, according to their Marie Claire entries this year.


Polestar has its Project 0, which was on the stand at Goodwood this month. As well as being a good-looking car, the Project 0 marks a seismic shift in the willingness of OEMs to stop tiptoeing round the edge of zero-emission motoring. It embarrasses mealy-mouthed efforts like recycled fishing nets accounting for under ten per cent of internal plastics, with an entire climate-neutral car. There’s no offsetting in sight (thank goodness – planting trees is at best cynical and in many cases unleashes more CO2 by disturbing soils and peatlands). Instead, the emissions of the production processes are on a strict eradication programme. SSAB, a Nordic steel company, is working with Polestar on fossil-free steel, Norwegian company Hydro is working with Polestar on zero-carbon aluminium and systems supplier ZF is working with the brand on electric powertrain systems. Autoliv is working on zero-emissions airbags and safety belts, and ZKW is doing likewise for lighting and wiring in Polestar cars. Universities, entrepreneurs, governments, researchers and investors have all been invited to come along and collaborate with Polestar on Project 0. And the most impressive part? Their deadline is not 2040 or 2050, but 2030, i.e., within a touching distance that doesn’t allow for excuses and delays. The company deserves to do well on the Nasdaq.


Sister brand Volvo is also hard at it, with its “Zero Omissions” campaign. In other words, we may not have all the answers for zero emissions right now, but we’re going to be totally transparent about that, with zero omissions about our carbon-neutral journey. It first took the form of a social media campaign to raise awareness, which worked very well, with Volvo taking the clever step of tagging competitors like Jaguar, BMW, Tesla and Mercedes and inviting them to join the challenge. Jaguar responded: solidarity is important to change consumer mindsets. Volvo was also the only car brand to have a CEO in attendance at Cop26 to sign the Glasgow Declaration. Critics say it was virtue signalling; I don’t agree, because the effectiveness of Glasgow depends on which markets you sell in, but in any case, I’m not sure that’s always a bad thing on such a public forum.


And then there’s Kia, which has been working with NGO The Ocean Cleanup, developing and scaling technologies to rid the ocean of plastic. We’re back to my scepticism about putting a smattering of ocean plastics in your next car, but Kia has gone far further. It has developed a system called “the Interceptor” with The Ocean Cleanup to stop plastic entering marine environments in the first place, by capturing it in rivers and introducing it into a recycling system with the second-life product in Kia cars. We’re still only talking about 20 per cent of internal plastics being composed of this stuff, but more fundamental is the efforts to stop plastic entering the oceans, rather than pour everything into the clean-up effort afterwards.

Working out how to design and manufacture a truly carbon-neutral car at volume is like pulling at a thread – before you know it, the whole thing has unravelled. That’s what governments now realise – tailpipe emissions were never going to be the solution for a sustainability-hungry public who are wised up; in fact, trying to sell consumers the EV dream is simply resulting in more questions.

Thankfully, OEMs realised that some time ago, and are now forging ahead.

Photography by Toby Whales and Phil Hay.

  • Polestar

  • Volvo

  • Kia

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