“Beyond Zero” – Toyota’s new greenwashing campaign

Matt Bonner’s “Beyond Zero” reclaimed advert, London, UK

Move over Exxon – the competition to be the most greenwashing, climate science denying mega-polluter in the world is heating up.

The world’s biggest manufacturer of cars, Toyota, has recently launched a new marketing campaign called “Beyond Zero”. This campaign is so full of pseudoscientific nonsense, we thought we’d give it a quick debunking in this blog.

Meaningless pseudoscience

Like any good greenwashing campaign, fluffy environmental language gives a whiff of legitimacy – after being cleared by the legal department to avoid anything definitive enough to land them in court.

Let’s start with the phrase itself, “Beyond Zero”, described as “Toyota’s vision to reach beyond carbon neutrality with its products, services and operations”.

“Beyond carbon neutrality” certainly sounds like it’s more ambitious than a typical corporate climate goal of zero emissions – good vibes all round! But what does it actually mean?

“Does ‘Beyond Zero’ mean Toyota’s EV sales will move beyond 0% of its combustion engine car sales, and reach 1%?”

Has Toyota strengthened its climate targets maybe? No, a quick look at their latest sustainability book (page 42) reveals this is unchanged – to achieve carbon neutrality for GHG emissions by 2050. (let’s not even go into how this phrasing leaves the door open for just buying some meaningless “carbon offsets” rather than actually reducing emissions).

The intermediate goals before 2050 are all per vehicle rather than outright emissions goals – e.g. “Reduce average GHG emissions from new vehicles by 33% in 2030 (compared to 2019 levels)”. But because the total number of vehicles sold each year is increasing faster than this improvement in efficiency per vehicle, the result is that overall emissions keep rising.

That indeed is what’s happened; according to its own data (see page 47 of its sustainability book), Toyota’s total emissions rose by a whopping 45% year-on-year to reach 575 million tons of CO2e in FY2022 – more than BP, TotalEnergies or Chevron.

So no, Toyota is not moving towards carbon neutrality, let alone “Beyond Zero” – it is in fact moving in the opposite direction. Toyota’s emissions are rising sharply, and will continue to rise as it enacts the plan it has publicly conveyed to its shareholders; to ramp up sales of its core product and add over 11 million new combustion engine vehicles to the roads this fiscal year.

This “Beyond Zero” slogan will also be a “new on-vehicle badge”. Are any of Toyota’s individual car models somehow “Beyond Zero”? To be fair to Toyota, it has finally started selling an EV with zero tailpipe emissions – the BZ4X which was the first model to include the words “Beyond Zero” in its name. But these made up just 0.2% of Toyota’s sales in 2022, the lowest EV share of any of the top five big carmakers. None of these rivals – far beyond Toyota in the transition to EVs – have the cheek to claim their zero-tailpipe EVs are somehow “beyond” zero emissions – implying they magically suck CO2 out of the air.

Moreover, it seems likely that Toyota will not only use the “Beyond Zero” tag on its miniscule EV offering – but also to brand its “hybrid” vehicles, the vast majority of which run solely on petrol/gasoline.

It must be maddening for climate scientists when the fossil fuels they say we desperately need to phase out are rebranded as having already solved climate change, and somehow moved beyond it.

Saying the quiet bit out loud…

Most interestingly, Toyota openly admits that the goal of the “Beyond Zero” marketing campaign is to distract attention away from EVs.

“Big picture, the “Beyond Zero” campaign aims to shift the conversation about electrification from the auto industry’s narrow focus on battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) to a broader perspective that encompasses Toyota’s more ambitious — and some would say more realistic — portfolio approach to transitioning away from internal combustion engines.”

Why would the largest incumbent combustion engine automaker, that’s lagging furthest behind all other big five automakers on the EV race, want to “shift the conversation” away from EVs? I can’t imagine.

But tell me more, Toyota, about your “more ambitious” portfolio of technologies to transition away from internal combustion engines?

“That includes hybrid EVs, plug-in hybrid EVs, fuel cell EVs and battery EVs.”

Brilliant. Toyota’s first two options to help us move away from internal combustion engines HAVE INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINES.

Ok what about those hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, surely they will help us get Beyond Zero? Umm no, Toyota has just last month admitted that its expensive and inefficient hydrogen passenger cars have “not been successful”, and that it will focus its hydrogen program on trucks instead. Even if we wait the rest of this decade, (you know, the decade in which climate scientists say we have to urgently act to halve global emissions to maintain a liveable planet), hydrogen fuel cell cars will remain so niche they’ll round to 0% of Toyota’s car sales in 2029.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of “Beyond Zero” – that Toyota’s fuel cell and EV sales move beyond 0% of its annual combustion engine car sales, and closer to 1%.

So in summary, Toyota wants to shift the energy transition conversation away from EVs, towards a “portfolio” of options which all turn out to be either petrol-powered, or nonsense, except the EVs we’re supposed to stop focusing on.

Keeping EV-curious consumers locked into petrol/gasoline 

Why does all this matter? Because it slows down the energy transition. Toyota is explicitly targeting this campaign at people who are already curious about switching to EVs, but instead of encouraging them to go for it, the aim is to redirect their EV enthusiasm towards some greenwashed petrol/gas cars instead.

In their words: “Based on focus group testing, Christ and Tripp [the company’s VP and marketing VP] are confident the “Beyond Zero” campaign will resonate with customers who are curious about the move away from internal combustion engines but are uncertain about when and how to engage.”

Governments from around the world will discuss the urgent need to phase out fossil fuels at this years’ COP28 climate summit.

But the world’s largest car company already has a plan to slow down this desperate race against time – the race of our lives – merely to prolong its vast profits from a legacy fossil fuel business model that should already be history.

“It will be a constant part of our paid advertising for the foreseeable future,” says Toyota.

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