Sustainable transportation is much more than just electrification

Sustainable transportation is much more than just electrification

Arguments about what form sustainable transport should take become more complex the more closely you look. Just comparing the exhaust pipe emissions isn’t enough, nor is it “good for the wheel,” which takes into account the entire path of power generation behind the car. But when you enter vehicle production and disposal across the entire lifecycle, the phrase “opening a can of worms” is an understatement. It’s like a hole. of snakes.

Electrification is the leading method for reducing transportation emissions. A battery electric vehicle (BEV) has zero tailpipe emissions compared to internal combustion engines (ICE). It also produces less brake dust due to regenerative braking. There may be slightly more tire wear, since BEVs are generally heavier, but these tend to be larger than NOx particles from ICEs so they are less problematic for health, and the impact of this has been greatly exaggerated anyway.

If you think about where the power of electric cars comes from, things get even more complicated. Emissions from electricity generation vary a lot across countries and even within countries, depending on the balance of fossil fuels, renewable and nuclear energy used by the respective national grids. However, as I have argued in the past, even with a dirty grid like the Australian grid, electric vehicles still produce less CO2 than a highly efficient hybrid ICE.

Of course, if you’re going to take into account emissions from electricity generation, you also need to consider the electricity and pollution generated during the production and refining of fossil fuels, which Auke Hoekstra of Eindhoven University of Technology has estimated is up to 30% of what comes out of an ICE’s exhaust pipe. As I argued in my previous article, this makes the Toyota Prius emit more CO2 than a BEV whatever the grille.

The next level to consider is vehicle production. BEV manufacturers have to admit that building their cars creates more elemental pollution than ICE, mostly due to the battery. Volvo has been quite vocal about its BEV’s carbon footprint compared to ICE, using the XC40 SUV as an example, and its numbers have been used as a stick to beat electrification by the anti-environment lobby ever since. However, if you look at total life-cycle emissions more generally, as research from the International Council on Clean Transportation that I referenced in a previous article shows, BEVs still cause fewer lifetime emissions than ICE, wherever they are manufactured and fueled โ€” even China and India.

Production is more complex than just carbon dioxide, and this is where the snake pit gets really venomous. Vehicle supply chains are enormously complex, and calculating the contributions of each individual component requires much better tracking than is currently available. How was the steel melted into each screw? Where did all the plastic come from? Are there animal products used? Where did all the minerals in BEV batteries come from, and how were they mined? This is not just a retrospective attempt to calculate the total carbon footprint but it will also be necessary to know it at the end of the vehicle’s life, so that it can be broken down and recycled more intelligently. The long-term dream is a circular economy, where the vast majority of materials end up being used again in newly manufactured products.

Other than electrification, there is a lot that can be done to make every component used in the manufacture of a vehicle as sustainable as possible. BMW, for example, recently announced how it will use plastic from fishing nets and recycled ropes to make trim parts like the floor mats for its cars. A lot of products are already made from recycled plastic bottles, with a whole ecosystem to collect them after use and then produce new plastic raw materials from them. Fishing nets are a relatively new area, although Polestar has been using them for a few years. Traditionally, when fishing nets and ropes reach the end of their useful lives, fishermen cut them off and throw them into the ocean. PLASTIX, which BMW is working with, incentivizes fishermen to return these used nets and ropes to shore by offering to pay for them, after which they are recycled into plastic pellets that can be used to manufacture new components.

Volvo is another company that, along with its sister brand Polestar, is very focused on understanding its supply chain and how to use recycled materials as much as possible. Where BMW has the i Vision Circular – a concept car made entirely from “secondary” recycled materials – Polestar has the Precept system and Volvo went leather-free last year. Tesla stopped using the skins in 2019, although it has faced criticism for doing so. These are just a few examples of how companies are realizing that the entire supply chain needs to become carbon-neutral, sustainable and reliant on secondary materials as much as possible. This is likely to become a huge industry in the coming years.

The key to the success of this strategy will be central knowledge of supply chains, including where the materials in ingredients come from, what they are, how they are made and how much energy is used to make them. Another program in which BMW is involved is a supply chain data ecosystem called Catena-X. This will require significant purchases from suppliers and manufacturers, however, who will need to enter information or work to make their existing material databases compliant. It is not likely to be an easy task but it will be an essential step towards getting around. Knowing which components have been used in a vehicle that has reached the end of its useful life will make it much easier to recycle those components, either by directly reusing them or recycling the materials.

Just to deepen this snake pit, there is another element to consider. One of the main arguments against BEVs is the extensive use of cobalt in their batteries. Much of the global supply of this mineral comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where much of the “artisanal” child labor is used in mining. Although battery chemicals such as lithium iron phosphate (LFP) exist without cobalt, and cobalt can be sourced from countries with better labor practices such as Australia or Canada, this is an area of โ€‹โ€‹concern. The DRC can be forced to improve its practices, which organizations like the Fair Cobalt Alliance are trying to do, but it is not the only place in the world where workers, including children, are exploited. Just as we need to decarbonize the entire supply chain to achieve greater sustainability, this supply chain ethics must also be considered. Electrification is only one part of this puzzle, albeit an important one.

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