Are we a nation obsessed with tailpipe emissions, or can we see the bigger picture?

A blog post by Philippa Oldham, Head of National Network Programmes - 01/07/2020

Generally, there is a good understanding that emitting excess greenhouse gas emissions is damaging for the environment. However, many seem unaware that emissions don’t just happen at the point of use.

We are at a critical point where we need to shift thinking to become holistic. I worry that there is a misunderstanding in some groups that by shifting to electric vehicles we will solve our transport emissions crisis, and reduce the impact that our automotive sector is having on climate change – this is not the case.

To address this, we need to start talking more about sustainability. Sustainability is not just an environmental challenge, but also a social and economic one. But how much control do we globally have over these three challenges? From an environmental perspective, everyone has the opportunity to make a difference, but to achieve this we need to start talking about life cycle analysis (LCA). LCA is an important tool, which can be used to reveal possible trade-offs between environmental impacts at the different life cycle phases, as well as between different impact categories. It is a technique for quantifying the environmental and human health impacts of a product over its lifespan and is often referred to as ‘cradle-to-grave analysis’, ‘eco-balance’ or ‘environmental foot-printing’. To date, the use phase has accounted for the most significant proportion of overall vehicle life cycle impact (due to our internal combustion engines burning fossil fuels (petrol and diesel)). This is reflected in current CO2 regulations, as vehicle construction and end of life is not included within scope. This has led to policy and legislation becoming obsessed with tailpipe emissions. Of course we shouldn’t be burning fossil fuels, but we must change the way we think about the system if we are truly going to deliver on a real net-zero emissions future. If we don’t, we run the risk of unintended negative consequences as a result of our mission to address global warming.

The UK is fortunate to have access to lots of renewable energy. Access to this low-cost energy must be directed at those manufacturing processes that are heavily energy–intensive, e.g. steel production or battery manufacturing. This will offer the UK an economic opportunity and advantage to look at how a transition to an LCA methodology could really help to reap the rewards and truly enable us to become a leader in these net-zero technologies. This can help us drive improvements in energy efficiency leading to innovative breakthroughs.

However, guidance is required for the sector if we are to shift to LCA methodologies; challenges remain in the consistency of assumptions, clear LCA boundaries, use of CO2 emission factors and the need for a common approach to present results. There needs to be a review and update of existing automotive life cycle inventories (LCI) as well as a better representation of the LCI for different powertrain technologies and vehicle types. Improved data is required for energy-intensive processes such as battery and electric motors manufacturing and solutions at end of life.

The Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) are working together to help organisations up and down the supply chain and across each of the life cycle stages to adopt an LCA approach. We are here to help the UK government develop the right policies to drive innovation and support the transition of our industry.

Back in November 2019 a workshop was held to bring together experts across the UK from multiple sectors, academia, industry and government to look at how we can support the UK automotive sector transition to an LCA methodology. Presentations from the workshop are available to access here.

During the week of the 6th July 2020 at 10:30 to 12:00 (BST) every day, the APC and LowCVP will bring together experts from across the life cycle stages to help provide insight to some of the challenges and opportunities that we face globally. Most importantly, these sessions will demonstrate how we can all make a difference and highlight where the UK can lead the way. If you are interested in finding out more why not join our upcoming LCA webinars? Click here for details and to register.