How times change. Motoring journalists used to get excited about roaring round circuits in V12-powered monster supercars; now we find it thrilling to go to panel discussions on decarbonisation.
A group of us left the Natural History Museum with brain-ache last month after listening to an expert panel hosted by BMW Group discussing how the group’s collective brands might truly decarbonise (by the way, did you know, as a complete aside, that Rolls-Royce now has the youngest average customer age of the group’s three brands, beating Mini?!).
“Decarbonisation”, like “net zero”, still needs some explaining: the former means reducing or removing carbon dioxide emissions from a company or economy through the use of low/zero-carbon power sources, while the latter means achieving a balance between the amount of emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere by a country or company. The UK set a target of net zero by 2050 as part of the Paris Agreement in 2016.
BMW’s decarbonisation panel at the museum consisted of Dr Thomas Becker, VP of sustainability and mobility for the group, Isobel Sheldon, Chief Strategy Officer at British Volt, Professor David Halpern, Chief Executive of The Behavioural Insights Team and Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the National History Museum.
What was striking, after an hour of debate and discussion, was that tailpipe emissions from cars count for very little in the race to net zero and total decarbonisation. The public’s efforts are concentrated right now on getting their heads round buying electrified cars, which is as it should be, but the tailpipe emissions of cars sold by automotive brands to the public count for little in the grand decarbonisation scheme of things. The two big areas that are crucial to long-term carbon reduction in the global automotive industry are the supply chain for OEMs and the manufacturing of batteries. These are two huge areas to control but without understanding the energy spent across the board, from manufacture to point of sale, it will be hard to develop green labelling that consumers can trust, in the manner of eco labels for white goods and homes, because the footprint of the end product will not have a transparent trail of environmental accountability. To then ensure that the labelling is standardised will be almost impossible.
To put it in perspective, and to quote Dr Thomas Becker from BMW Group’s board, if the group does nothing, by 2030 the CO2 emissions of its supply chain will exceed those of the cars it sells (that’s before the internal combustion-engine shut-off date).
Supply chains are tricky beasts. A wider choice of countries from which to extract raw materials is necessary, and manufacturers need to stop relying on high-carbon, poor countries and start looking to European markets to supply current and new materials. The energy used by vehicles within the supply chain is a crucial issue that needs addressing promptly. As for using more recycled, second-life parts, Dr Becker pointed out that right now, it would be possible to make a BMW entirely from secondary-use materials, but the issue is the hugely fluctuating price of new and used materials. Brands like BMW have to have mechanisms in place to track and monitor the markets to make sure they trade at exactly the right time to get the best cost per euro. All of which is time consuming and expensive.
But batteries present perhaps the biggest quandaries (and opportunities). Prof Herrington, head of Earth Sciences and a man with several brains on the face of it, stressed the importance of decarbonising the mining industry. An astonishing six per cent of the world’s energy demands goes on breaking rocks, i.e. mining. Mining of materials such as lithium as well as the conversion of materials for batteries takes place in high-carbon countries: we urgently need to start repatriating those processes to Europe, and mining metals here again. Prof Herrington cited the possibility of mining lithium in Cornwall, and pointed out that mining and its quarries result in biodiversity wins, which the UK is in need of, thanks to our lately farmed landscape.
Meanwhile, Britishvolt is busy looking at alternatives to lithium, although the panel stressed that the answer to mining in the DRC was not to withdraw from the country but to work with NGOs and charities in the region to improve working conditions.
There are also challenges presented by the welding of components in batteries which make recycling harder, and the second life of the units as energy storage facilities. And then there’s the rather pressing issue of tyre wear caused by the extra weight and acceleration of electric vehicles, which results is up to 20 per cent more tyre rubber particles in the atmosphere and oceans.
Lots to ponder then, well beyond the tailpipe emissions of cars. It may all seem like a war in a far-off country right now, but one day soon we will all want clear eco-friendly labelling on our cars on dealer forecourts, with an energy count we can understand and compare, no matter which brand we buy from.