The climate crisis is rarely off the front pages and recently there was some especially worrying news; the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at its highest in human history.
With a level of 407.8 parts per million, the last time CO2 levels were this high was around three million years ago – a full million years before recognisable humans evolved. Temperatures were three degrees higher, and sea levels were 20 metres above present levels, meaning that most people reading this would have been under water.
Tailpipe emissions are only one issue facing everyone from the manufacturing side and also those on the consumer side of the equation. Carbon debt - the CO2 emitted during production - is also a huge factor in a car's environmental impact over its lifespan. When it comes to EVs, the problem is put into sharp focus as for all their numerous advantages in creating clean air on a local scale, they too will still have a carbon debt – and it is almost always higher than that of a conventional car (some sources put it well above 50 per cent higher).
VW's figure of 37 per cent less environmental impact includes improved efficiencies across the supply chain as well as the vehicle manufacturing processes. Where the brand's flagship EV, the ID.3 is concerned, VW has ensured that it has pulled out all the stops. The car leaves the Zwickau factory carbon neutral thanks to a mixture of a plant that is run on 100 per cent renewable energy and carbon offsetting up the supply chain.
Audi is also working on lowering its environmental impact with its so-called Mission Zero. Its plant in Brussels where the e-tron and e-tron Sportback are produced is carbon neutral, preventing the release of 17,000 tons of CO2 per year. Other Audi production facilities have also had schemes implemented not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also to clean up local water supplies, reduce harmful solvents being released and reduce the burden on local power grids.
Volvo is another manufacturer that has recently made public its green ambitions alongside the release of its first EV, the XC40 Recharge. The headline is its mission to become completely carbon neutral by 2040. In the meantime it aims to reduce the per-car CO2 impact by 40 per cent by 2025, with top-to-bottom, company-wide emissions reduced by a quarter in that time. It is also looking to increase the use of recycled plastics by a quarter by 2025.
Another company with a 25 per cent reduction in overall CO2 emissions goal (compared to 2010 levels), albeit by 2022, is Renault Group. It has taken a three-pronged approach which consists of making cleaner vehicles, reducing the overall impact of Renault activities and cleaning up the manufacturing process. For Renault, 16 per cent of its carbon footprint is associated with manufacture. One of its initiatives is to increase the amount of recycled materials used in production, so each vehicle contains at least 30 per cent recycled materials, and also to ensure that 95 per cent of Renault vehicles are recycled at the end of their lives. The new ZOE, for example, has upholstery made from 100 per cent recycled materials, a common theme among various manufacturers now.
Nissan's target when it comes to manufacturing is a 36 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions per vehicle produced by 2050 when compared to 2005 levels. It is also aiming for a 90 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions from the vehicles themselves when compared to 2000 levels by 2050. This does sound like a healthy reduction at a glance, but it's a little bit of a fiddle, given that the company's CO2 emissions will have gone up since the early 2000s. That aside, Nissan's approach isn't just around changing the way it makes its cars through more sustainable factories and the like; Nissan is very active in promoting more sustainable use and end-of-life applications. This week a white paper led by Nissan was released by the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities and made recommendations on how governments and authorities can use smart mobility to reduce emissions. Things like smart grids, widespread V2G, EV-friendly policy and reusing end of life components was all put forward to help governments meet a net zero target by 2050.
At present, batteries for the Nissan LEAF are manufactured here in the UK at a plant that, whilst built by Nissan, was bought out and is run by Chinese renewable energy firm, Envision. Another domestic battery initiative has been the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry. However, the UK is lagging in terms of battery production which was recently compounded by Tesla’s decision to locate its Gigafactory Europe in Germany. The trouble for the UK auto industry is that they’re in a catch 22: there is a dire need for the UK auto industry to have giga-scale battery production facilities in order to grow and moreover, domestically-produced batteries will almost certainly be made in a carbon-conscious way. However, importing batteries from China is comparatively cheap and therefore an attractive proposition, despite a higher carbon debt. A domestic manufacturer will need to commit to buying UK-made products to make such a venture viable.
The problem that EV manufacturers face is a massive one, unfortunately, and as much as they can ensure their factories and facilities are as green as possible, lithium-ion batteries are carbon-intensive to make. Most are still manufactured in China where there is a heavy reliance on coal power, then there's the shipping and all of the other elements that help rack up a big EV carbon debt. Another issue that manufacturers are facing is ethically-sourced materials for EV batteries. With Amnesty International publicly challenging leaders within the electric vehicle industry earlier this year to make the world’s first completely ethical battery within five years, manufacturers are taking steps.
BMW was one of the first to act to ensure that the cobalt going into its batteries is ethically sourced. It has undertaken a thorough review of its entire supply chain to ensure clarity on where raw materials are coming from, meaning that it will only accept companies that extract cobalt from mines where employees have proper protections. Volvo has also looked at its supply chain to clean up its act with regards raw materials. It has adopted Blockchain so that it knows the exact route materials have taken from ground to production plant, ensuring that along the way Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ethical standards have been maintained.
The fact is that in almost all circumstances an electric vehicle is greener than a petrol or diesel equivalent over its lifetime, even with a higher initial carbon debt. A petrol or diesel car not only pollutes when it’s made, it continues to do so to a much greater extent than an EV throughout its life – every time it is switched on. Whilst upstream emissions are obviously a factor for EVs, when you remove them from the equation there is the huge benefit of better air quality locally – a significant cause of illness and premature death, especially in cities. The origin and manufacture of materials is also being dealt with rapidly, ensuring that at every stage EVs are not only clean, but are ethical as well.
Whilst we're a long way from true 'guilt-free' motoring, we're well on our way, and when compared to conventional cars, EVs will get us there much quicker.