• Jacob Bourne

Sustainably Produced Cars are Coming, but the Climate Will Have to Wait

Some automakers are setting goals to make vehicle production more environmentally sustainable but don’t expect to buy a climate-friendly car this year or next.

Credit: Unsplash/Jonas Junk

There’s been increased focus in the building industry on addressing the embodied carbon of buildings, not merely the operational carbon. This issue is also highly relevant to the automotive industry. After taking decades to roll out electric vehicles, a lag persists in automakers producing cars with a low carbon footprint.

Operational carbon refers to the carbon footprint associated with driving a car, or in terms of a building, powering it and running HVAC systems. Also very important in pushing the needle on sustainability and tackling climate change is taking stock and lowering embodied carbon. This concerns the carbon emissions associated with the construction of a building or the production of a vehicle. Just as charging an electric vehicle with electricity from wind and solar versus fossil fuels lowers the operational carbon, using less carbon-intensive materials and manufacturing techniques results in a smaller carbon footprint.

California-based Fisker Inc. announced plans to develop and produce a climate-neutral vehicle, but it won’t hit the market until 2027. While this may seem far in the future regarding climate change, on average, it takes about 5.9 years to design, develop and produce a new car.

In a statement, the company said that purchasing offsets to achieve climate neutrality won’t be part of the plan but instead will use recycled and remanufactured materials. However, supply chains of supplier and logistics partners may contain offset purchases, said Fisker CEO Henrik Fisker, citing challenges of producing and delivering products without creating greenhouse gas emissions.

“We plan to radically disrupt the mobility industry by setting an ambitious goal for ourselves: to produce a climate-neutral vehicle by 2027,” said Fisker. “We put people and the planet at the forefront of our mission, ensuring a cleaner future for all.”

Fisker will assess the environmental impact of its vehicle line by evaluating the five stages of the life cycle: sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, use phase, and end-of-life recycling and reuse. A proprietary Fisker-Flexible Platform Adaptive Design will help this effort by minimizing the Bill of Materials, working with suppliers to develop emission-free products, relying on rail and electric-powered transport and practicing more sustainable recycling. Fisker will be working with Magna and Foxconn manufacturers.

"As Fisker develops its emissions-free products, the company will endeavor to promote a circular economy by sourcing recycled materials and remanufactured components – and work to utilize public charging points running on 100% renewable energy," added Fisker. "We will prioritize partners with stated pledges to achieve climate neutrality. We already deployed cross-company teams focused on sourcing climate positive materials and critical components such as aluminum, steel, electronics and lithium-ion batteries from companies with carbon-neutral commitments."

While the embodied carbon of vehicles is an area in need of much more focus by automakers, the work of lowering the operational carbon of cars is far from finished. Only about one in 250 cars on the road globally is electric. The electric ones aren’t necessarily powered by 100% renewable energy sources, as many electrical grids still rely on natural gas and some on coal and petroleum. Furthermore, the operational carbon of factories producing cars needs consideration.

This is something that Toyota has announced taking action on, stating a goal of carbon neutrality for all its factories by 2035. The previous goal aimed for by the automaker was 2050.

The initial focus will be introducing new processes for painting, coating and casting,

Toyota's Chief Production Officer Masamichi Okada said.

"In this way, the processes that have high generation of CO2 will be focused on to reduce as much as possible, or even eliminate CO2 emissions,” said Okada, adding that adding onsite and offsite renewable energy power sources will have to be considered.

Other automakers are responding to calls to ramp up sustainability measures. BMW said that its factories in China will be carbon neutral by the end of 2021; meanwhile, Ford announced plans for 100% renewable energy-powered factories by 2035.

While it’s not a simple, overnight process for automakers to make these sustainable changes, the need for them is urgent. Globally, transportation accounts for 20% of CO2 emissions, with 74.5% coming from road vehicles.


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