Transportation is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise, it relies almost exclusively on oil, as well as on a multi-trillion infrastructure that cannot be replaced overnight.
Due to increased investor and end-user scrutiny, the car industry is one of the pioneers in terms of carbon reporting and target-setting. Therefore, whilst freight will be the object of a future article, we want to provide you with expert insight of how the transport of people can align with global net zero goals. We also outline practical advice for automotive companies to transform into a truly sustainable business.
There are 1.2 billion cars on the world’s roads today. They produce 4 GtCO2e annually through fuel production and combustion – 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is on an upward trajectory, because of the rising share of SUVs in global car sales: 46% in 2021, up from 27% in 2015. An SUV burns up to 23% more fuel than a medium-sized vehicle, which dwarfs any improvement enabled by energy efficiencies.
Today, only 0.5% of the global passenger fleet are battery electric vehicles (BEV). This is increasing fast, but BEVs are not carbon-free, and produce 1 tonne CO2e p.a. on average (vs. 3 tonnes for internal combustion engine vehicles, or ICEVs). This is because most of the electricity used to charge them is still generated in coal or gas fired power plants. Besides, the manufacturing of BEVs emits up to 40% more than ICEVs, due to the production of batteries.
The automotive industry creates other important issues beyond carbon. It consumes huge quantities of resources (minerals and plastics for cars; rare earths and rare metals for batteries; crude oil for fuel; cement, steel and petroleum derivatives for road infrastructures, etc), creating a risk of supply shortages or price spikes. Besides, natural resource mining and refining often happens in places with very limited environmental and social regulations, which threatens the health and living conditions of both employees and local populations. We can’t grow indefinitely in a finite world, nor continue to always produce more cars, always bigger.
Electric vehicles will take a key role in the net zero transition, but only under certain conditions.
First, they must be powered by clean electricity. This is not straightforward: if all the passenger cars of the world were changed to EVs tomorrow, we would need 3,300 TWh more electricity per year to charge them, the equivalent of ten years of electricity consumption in the UK. It means we would need to increase the renewable generation capacity by 30% just to meet passenger transportation needs: it would require huge quantities of materials to build windmills or solar panels, as well as the grid infrastructure needed to connect them.
Second, the automotive sector (like all sectors) needs to embrace circular models to reduce the strain on natural resources, the energy needed to produce them, and the pollution their processing generate. This is particularly important with electric vehicles, due to the amount of rare earths and rare metals that battery manufacturing requires.
Third, the increase of SUV sales must be stopped and reversed: we need to go back to lighter vehicles, that can be powered by smaller batteries.
Finally, transport needs to be increasingly car-free in both urban and rural areas: walking, cycling, rail and public transport must be prioritised. Where modal switches are not possible, new models like car-sharing or car-pooling will be crucial to reduce total fuel consumption and create added benefits, like lower traffic and a reduction of air pollution due to brake and tyre wear.
Although individual automotive companies can reduce their environmental impact, the sector can’t become truly sustainable without a radical change of business model across the entire supply chain.
more than a word.