We hear a lot about sustainability – how to live more sustainably, how to make more sustainable decisions and how to buy sustainable products. But what role does sustainability play in the car industry and how sustainable are electric cars?
Sustainability focuses around the idea that we need to meet our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. This means that goods should be produced in a way that causes little (or no) damage to the environment, and electric cars are no different.
There has been a growing focus on sustainability across industries. It’s much easier to buy products made from recycled and/or recyclable materials, find information on where goods are sourced from, and have access to a greater choice of ethical services.
An IBM study found that 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to help reduce negative environmental impact. While recycling more or shopping locally are smaller decisions than purchasing a car, they are all important steps in the right direction. These changing habits signal a shift in priorities towards increasingly sustainable choices.
Experts predict that value and ease will continue to be the largest factors in buying decisions for some time, but rounding up the top three will be sustainability.
For the automotive industry, it can be a tough balancing act. But one thing is clear; sustainability is a strategic priority that’s here to stay. In a Capgemini Research Institute survey of 500 large automotive organisations, as well as 300 related experts, it was found that:
- 62% of automotive organisations have a comprehensive sustainability strategy with defined goals and targets
- 74% of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have an electric vehicle plan
- 52% of the organisations support and promote circular economy initiatives
How cars affect the environment
It’s no secret that transport hasn’t been great for the planet. In fact, it accounts for around one-fifth of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, broken down as follows:
Road traffic accounts for the majority of transport emissions. The largest contributor of greenhouse gases for most cars are tailpipe emissions. These are the chemicals produced by a car with a conventional internal combustion engine as it runs, and include:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
- Particulate matter (PM10)
- Ozone (O3)
Over the years, there’s been plenty of initiatives to limit the effects of tailpipe emissions. These started in 1970 when the first European exhaust emissions standard for passenger cars was introduced. Not much happened until 1992 when the Euro 1 standard came along, introducing the requirement to fit catalytic converters to petrol cars to reduce carbon monoxide emissions.
We’re now on Euro 6 standards which ensure pollutants are reduced by 96% compared to the 1992 limits, according to the AA.
Now that we’ve left the EU, as set out in the government’s Road to Zero Strategy, they plan to pursue ‘a future approach as we leave the European Union, that is at least as ambitious as the current arrangements for vehicle emissions regulation.’
However, it’s not just running a car which can impact the environment. There’s also the reality of demand. According to the Capgemini Research Institute report, The Automotive In the Era of Sustainability, the rate at which people buy cars continues to grow.
While initiatives such as those above have led to great improvements in the fuel efficiency of vehicles and consequently a reduction in emissions, the demand for cars is undermining any advancements. Between 2005 and 2018, 44% more vehicles were sold, while there’s been a 26% reduction in emissions per car.
Balancing our need for transport
We need to get around. Cars offer us huge convenience and freedom of movement, not to mention the reality that cars are a bit of a symbol of style and status. When you’ve had your own car for years, it can be hard to imagine life without one.
When looking to make more sustainable or ethical choices, changing or ditching cars isn’t the easiest switch. When asked what would convince them to switch from their private car to alternative modes of transport, the most popular reply from the general public was ‘nothing’. The positive impact on the environment was only mentioned by five percent of respondents.
It’s clear that people are attached to their cars. And, in many cases, they are a necessity of life. If you live in more rural areas with limited or no public transport, it could be miles to the nearest shop, doctors or other amenity. It’s also not feasible for everyone to use public transport even if it is available – for example, those who rely on Motability vehicles with adaptations. Currently, people may also be cautious of public transport because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So, what’s the answer? Going forwards, electrification of vehicles has a huge role to play in tackling the impact cars have on the environment – largely because it eliminates all tailpipe emissions. Instead of burning fossil fuels for power, they harness electricity from the power grid.
There are alternatives to electric cars, such as hydrogen-powered cars, but by comparison their development and adoption is limited. The potential impact in the near future is much greater with electric cars.
The importance of electric cars
According to the Capgemini Research Institute report, the shift to electric vehicles would cut the overall lifetime Greenhouse Gas (GHG) footprint by about 37% for passenger vehicles, while reducing the operating footprint by 75%.
When compared to an internal combustion engine, there’s a reduction in GHG emissions for all areas except two. Currently, the production of electric car bodies and components, as well as power production, is slightly higher. But for technology which is still advancing, this makes sense. Over the lifecycle of a car, an electric vehicle is still considerably less emitting and we can expect further improvements to manufacturing methods.
The true impact that electric vehicles can have on the environment also highly depends on the power grid of that country. The figures used above are based on the grid in the 27 EU countries and the UK when powered by renewable sources. Depending on the mix of electricity supply, the reduction in emissions from an electric vehicle will vary. For countries with carbon-intensive energy generation, there would be smaller reduction.
Nevertheless, electric cars have great potential. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), sales of electric vehicles topped 2.1 million globally in 2019. It surpassed the previous year, which was already a record year for sales, by 40%. Just look at this growth:
- 2010 = 17,000 – Back in 2010, there were only around 17,000 electric cars on roads around the world
- 2019 = 7.2 million – By 2019, that number had grown to 7.2 million
How far we have come
The most concrete evidence that electrification is the future in the UK comes in the form of the ban on the sales of new petrol and diesel cars. Originally, all new cars with internal combustion engines were due to be banned from UK showrooms in 2040. Now, the ban comes into effect in 2030.
New hybrid vehicles powered by both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor with significant zero-emission ranges are allowed to be sold until 2035. There are no plans to restrict the sales of second-hand petrol, diesel or hybrid vehicles.
Ahead of the 2030 ban, sales of electric vehicles in the UK are moving in the right direction. In October 2020, new vehicle registrations put electric vehicles on a positive trajectory:
When we look back to some of the first electric vehicles on the market, it’s clear to see how far we’ve come. In fact, inventors in Europe and the US were working with motors powered by electricity at the inception of the car. The first production electric car was built in London in 1884 by an Englishman named Thomas Parker. It was in the US, though, where electric cars dominated in the 1900s.
But as the cost of fuel fell and people wanted to travel further, it led to something of a dark age for electric cars which lasted for much of the 20th century.
It wasn’t until 1996 that General Motors launched an electric car, the EV1, arguably the first electric vehicle of the modern era. It had a realistic range of about 70 miles if you were driving near its top speed (80mph) and up to 90 miles if you averaged around 45mph. Charging from the power grid took two to three hours, or 12-15 hours if you used the portable charger stored in the boot.
Compared to electric cars of today, Teslas for example, none of which have a range of less than 200 miles, it’s clear to see that carmakers are working towards cars which are not only better for the environment, but generally better to drive and own. Tesla’s first car, The Roadster, came ten years after the EV1. It’s exciting to see the change each decade brings.
Further challenges for electric car uptake
While electric car sales are steadily growing, after the 2030 ban of internal combustion engine (ICE) car sales, we’re likely to see a significant boom. Indeed, an AA survey of nearly 18,000 drivers found that 47% will be considering an electric vehicle for their next car.
But for those who said they would not consider an electric car, these were the top reasons:
- 1st: Lack of public charging points (69%)
- 2nd: EVs are too expensive (67%)
- 3rd: Worried about ‘range anxiety’ or battery range (66%)
All survey respondents were then asked about their level of agreement with a range of statements about electric cars. The top three most agreed with statements were:
- 1st: Electric cars are too expensive (89%)
- 2nd: Charging an electric car takes too long (72%)
- 3rd: The national grid won’t be able to cope if we all switch to electric cars (63%)
Across responses, the cost of electric vehicles and the ability to charge them efficiently are the two key challenges for greater uptake. Indeed, in 2021, the Plug-in Car Grant (PiCG) offered buyers £3,000 off the price of any new electric car with a retail price of up to £50,000 – this has been cut. Now, £2,500 is available for EVs worth up to £35,000.
This may deter potential buyers, but it turns out that most people don’t even know the money is available; 63% of respondents had never heard of PiCG, and half were unaware of the Electric Vehicle Home Charge Scheme, which helps people pay for having a charger installed at home.
These misunderstandings extend into charging too. Most drivers don’t cover more than 20 miles a day, which means most electric cars wouldn’t need to be charged more than once a week or so. The worries of regularly running out and having nowhere to charge are slightly misguided. Just take a look at the ranges of some of the current electric cars on sale:
Nonetheless, the UK does need a comprehensive charging infrastructure in order to support the move from fuels to electric. SMMT and Frost & Sullivan analysis has revealed that if we assume 24% of the UK car market is electric by 2030 and 41% by 2035, then we’d need:
- 6.99 million charge points by 2030 – around 1.66 million of which will need to be public
- 11.83 million charge points by 2035 – of which 2.8 million will need to be public
Fortunately, as part of the March 2020 Budget, the government announced the rapid charging fund. £500m has been allocated towards increasing the number of rapid electric vehicle charging points throughout the UK. Across England’s motorways and major A roads, the plan is to install:
- 2,500 high-powered charge points by 2030
- 6,000 high-powered charge points by 2035
This doesn’t include private installations by individuals, businesses or local authorities, which are also likely to grow at rapid rate supported by the government’s grant schemes for electric vehicle charging infrastructure:
- Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme
- Workplace Charging Scheme
- Chargepoint authorisation
- On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme
- Ultra Low Emission Taxi Infrastructure Scheme
The impact of electric cars
So far, we’ve focused heavily on the emissions of vehicles and the impact they have on their environment. Whilst electric cars emit no tailpipe emissions, it wouldn’t be a fully sustainable approach to only focus on one area.
From the Capgemini Research Institute report mentioned earlier, 74% of automotive original equipment manufacturers have an electric vehicle strategy. But only 56% of them include this as part of their overall sustainability strategy.
So what does this mean? Well, it’s easy to assume that simply offering electric vehicles is enough. In reality, they need to be designed and built with sustainability in mind.
A large part of producing sustainable transport is ensuring the entire lifecycle of a vehicle is considered, including things like production and disposal. Circular economy practices focus on the principle of reusing and recycling resources where possible. For example, using renewable sources of energy at manufacturing plants or continuing to explore how battery life can be extended.
A circular economy has the potential to offer improvements to sustainability across the automotive value chain. Fortunately, car manufacturing does lend itself to circular principles. For example, according to Capgemini, using remanufactured engines results in 73% to 87% fewer CO2 emissions compared to building a new one through traditional processes. The report also confirms that currently 32% of the automotive organisations’ supply chain contributes to the circular economy.
How sustainable are batteries and chargers?
All electric vehicles are also referred to as battery electric vehicles. That’s because they have an electric motor, rather than an internal combustion engine. Electricity is stored and used to power the motor and turn the wheels. Once the power has run out, the batteries can be recharged using electricity from the grid.
There are some queries around how sustainable creating – and disposing of – electric vehicle batteries really is. Three key raw materials used in the manufacture of batteries are lithium, cobalt and nickel. The Faraday Institute estimates that global lithium production will need to quadruple and global cobalt production will need to double to fulfil the growing demand.
These raw materials are found in a limited number of countries. According to the SMMT 2020 UK Automotive Sustainability Report, The Democratic Republic of Congo is the biggest producer of cobalt, supplying more than 60% of the world’s demand, while large quantities of lithium are found in Chile, Australia and Argentina.
Not only do manufacturers have to ensure the security of supply due to this concentration of resources, they also have to source raw materials in a sustainable manner. Internationally, forces have come together to increase transparency and traceability of the supply chain of these materials. Efforts include:
- Cobalt Industry Responsible Assessment
- Framework (CIRAF)
- Global Battery Alliance
- Pact’s Mines to Markets (M2M)
- Responsible Cobalt Initiative (RCI)
- Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI)
As an example of what these programmes work towards, the Global Battery Alliance have agreed on ten guiding principles for a sustainable battery chain. These are:
- Maximising the productivity of batteries
- Enabling a productive and safe second life use
- Circular recovery of battery materials
- Ensuring transparency of GHG emissions and their progressive reduction
- Prioritising energy efficiency measures and increasing the use of renewable energy
- Fostering battery-enabled renewable energy integration
- High-quality job creation and skills development
- Eliminating child and forced labour
- Protecting public health and the environment and supporting responsible trade and anti-corruption practices
- Local value creation and economic diversification
Source: Global Battery Alliance’s A Vision for a Sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030.
Car manufacturers involved in the Global Battery Alliance include: Audi, BMW, Honda, Renault Group, Volvo and VW Group.
Now, what about the reality that electric vehicle emissions are higher during the manufacturing stage? It’s something consumers are aware of. A Lloyds Banking Group poll highlighted worries around the impact of battery production as a barrier to the uptake of electric vehicles.
However, while more CO2 is produced when manufacturing an EV compared to an equivalent petrol or diesel car, this is quickly paid off. Electric cars are still much cleaner than internal combustion engine cars over their lifetime. Lloyds use the example of a VW Golf-sized electric vehicle. Purchased and used in the UK, it would be responsible for around 25 tonnes of CO2 over its full life. An equivalent petrol car would be responsible for 80 tonnes of CO2.
What’s more, as our national energy providers utilise more sustainable energy and technology improves, this battery production debt will be paid off even quicker.
An insight into car waste
While acknowledging how far we’ve yet to go in making driving sustainable, it’s important to also recognise achievements within the industry. The SMMT 2020 UK Automotive Sustainability Report, for example, highlighted that the amount of waste sent to landfill per vehicle production fell by 23.2% in 2019.
A lot of car parts, including batteries, can outlast its use. Without the proper planning, they end up in landfill. But they can have useful second lives. Batteries can be used as storage grid batteries, be recycled or remanufactured.
In fact, recycling waste is one of the most commonly implemented sustainable circular economy initiatives used across the car industry:
When a vehicle reaches the end of its life, vehicle manufacturers have an obligation to provide free take-back for cars. Vehicles are actually one of the most recycled retail products on the market as many parts can be reused.
Carmakers are delivering plenty of innovation across the whole value chain. As early as 2017, GM was being written about for achieving a zero waste to landfill status for its Flint Engine facility in Central Michigan. They hadn’t sent anything to a dump for the 12 years prior. More than 150 of its factories and office buildings now hold the same zero waste designation and GM gains $1bn in revenue each year from the sale of recyclable materials. The benefits are environmental and financial.
Plenty of other manufacturers can also boast about the zero waste or waste reduction efforts, including Yamaha Motors, BMW, Ford and Toyota.
Guidance on responsible electric car ownership
Did you know that the government has introduced green number plates? It’s an idea to allow drivers of electric vehicles to show off their eco credentials. It’s thought that it’ll also help local authorities put in place new policies to incentivise people to own and drive them – for example, allowing drivers to benefit from local incentives like free or cheaper parking, or even the use of bus lanes. It’s hoped it could convince more people to jump on the electric bandwagon.
Whatever your motivations for buying an electric car, it seems that once you purchase a greener choice of car, you won’t want to go back to petrol or diesel. In a poll of 2,000 electric car owners, 91% said they wouldn’t consider trading in their vehicle for a petrol or diesel version. Only one percent said they would because they missed their old car. It’s clear that people enjoy owning an electric vehicle.
Sustainable initiatives from car manufacturers
When deciding to buy any car, you’ll want to know a bit about the manufacturer. And when deciding to switch up your car to be more sustainable, you’ll definitely want to investigate what each carmaker is committed to.
The responsibility doesn’t just fall to consumers to make smart, ethical decisions. Car manufacturers – in fact, all businesses – have a responsibility to the environment. The impact they can have on the transition to environmentally-friendly alternatives is much greater than individuals.
So here’s some good news from within the car industry:
- In 2019, Bentley Motors achieved a carbon neutrality certification for its factory headquarters in Crewe; 100% of the electricity used on-site is generated by on-site solar panels or purchased as certified green energy.
- Back in 2017, Honda announced its ambition to have two-thirds of its sales to be electrified by 2025. Fast forward two years and they plan to have 100% of their European sales to be delivered by electrified powertrains by 2022.
- Toyota invested £20m in a new global paint line in its plastics shop in 2019, enabling them to use water-based paints rather than solvent-based paints and dramatically reduce emission of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
- Ford conducted a year-long trial in London to see if plug-in hybrids could help improve air quality in cities. A range of businesses using 20 Plug-In Hybrid Ford Transit Custom vans covered 150,000 miles to see if they could still perform their jobs using zero-emissions power. During the trial 75% of the fleet’s mileage in central London was completed using pure electric power and 49% in Greater London was completed using pure electric power.
These initiatives are just the tip of the iceberg. Across different carmakers, vehicle types and manufacturing methods, efforts are being made to improve the sustainability of the industry. As well as higher taxes imposed on vehicles that don’t fulfil the expected standards pushing car manufacturers to shift their goals towards sustainability, there’s also the recognition that it’s what consumers increasingly care about too.
General buying and driving considerations
As the UK’s uptake of zero emission vehicles accelerates, one huge benefit is that costs are coming down. Experts spoke to the Guardian about a ‘tipping point’ at which electric cars become cheaper than petrol and diesel cars. This is when rapid mass adoption is expected to take place, similar to what’s happened in Norway. In the Scandinavian nation, tax breaks on electric cars are much greater, meaning they’re cheaper to buy.
Professor Tim Lenton, at the University of Exeter, said this has led to consumers who “voted with their wallets.” His latest study compared the market share in UK and Norway in 2019:
- Electric vehicles in Norway were 0.3% cheaper and had 48% market share.
- Electric vehicles in the UK were 1.3% more expensive and had 1.6% market share.
Once the price is cheaper, market share soars. BloombergNEF’s analysis predicts the costs of lithium-ion batteries will fall enough that electric cars will match the price of petrol and diesel cars by 2023, Lenton suggests 2024-2025.
This is hugely important as electric cars become the most economic choice, they’ll become a much easier choice for more drivers. Perhaps you want to wait until this point. Or perhaps, because of environmental concerns, you want to buy now. Whatever your choice, there are actions you can take now to improve the sustainability of your driving:
- Consider each journey: Do you need to drive to your local shop or to do the school run? If it’s possible to walk some journeys, this could have a positive impact on your overall carbon footprint.
- Car share: Where possible, consider giving or receiving a lift. Even if it’s just you and one other person, that cuts the emissions of the journey in half.
- Watch the weight of your vehicle: Consider how much stuff you’re carrying around in your car and whether it’s necessary. Additional weight means you’ll be using more fuel or energy.
- Tailor your driving: Driving along at 50mph in third gear is not only terrible for a car’s performance, but it’s another waste of fuel. Don’t wait until you hear your engine struggling to move up gears.
- Maintain your car: Maintaining your car will make sure it’s performing efficiently. Tyre pressure and condition is particularly important as under-inflated tyres use up more fuel.