Polestar and Rivian jointly commissioned a new climate report on industry-wide emissions, and the results were clear: Electrification of products is not enough to get automakers to a net-zero emissions future.
The two rival automakers commissioned global management consulting firm Kearney to take a look at “wheel-to-wheel” emissions of the global vehicle fleet all the way up to 2050 — the year the Paris Climate Agreement is aiming for global net zero carbon emissions in order to stall warming at a 1.5 Celsius.
Almost every automaker has made a commitment in recent years to either eliminate internal combustion engines from their line up or significantly increase EV options on dealer lot. Which is great! But while 15 percent of global emissions come from passenger vehicles, only 60 to 65 percent of the emissions associated with a new ICE car come from the tailpipe. The rest can be found further upstream in the production process, particularly where suppliers are involved.
There’s a depressing amount of room for improvement, and not a whole lot of time left. From the study:
The remaining global emission budget is estimated by IEA to be approximately 500 GtCO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) before 2050 in order to stay below a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature increase.5 Assuming passenger vehicles maintain an equal share of global emissions (~15 percent, considering total life cycle emissions), this would equate to approximately 75 to 80 Gt of total emissions left for the industry. At the current trajectory this budget will be reached by 2035, which would equate to an overshoot of 75 percent in 2050, based on ICCT optimistic projections (our baseline case)—or larger when applying conservative assumptions.
The numbers above are rightly debated; this is a complex topic. What share of the remaining GHG budget should “passenger vehicles” take? Will efficiency advances in the combustion engine sufficiently drive GHG reduction? What about the energy crisis, the price and efficiency of fossil-free power sources, raw material availability, battery efficiency, and technology yet to be developed?6 Will different regions transition at a different pace? To support this discussion, scenarios and sensitivity analysis are included in the longer version of this report.
However, whichever way it is modeled, the pathway to 1.5 degrees for the passenger vehicle industry is tight. Few reports project a scenario that is achievable without accelerated action. Certainly, the trajectory is too close for comfort. Every year that passes eats up approximately 7 percent of the GHG budget in the baseline trajectory, implying greater subsequent effort and capital requirements just to play catch-up and amplifying the cost to adjust each year
Unfortunately, supply chain emissions from EVs is 35 to 50 percent higher than for ICE vehicles. With EVs cutting down on 60 to 65 percent of emissions just by losing the tailpipe, battery powered cars are still better for the climate, but not by much. Recycling and disposal of depleted battery packs also remains a challenge for the industry. And then theres’s steel and iron production which also generates a huge amount of emissions — a problem no matter how a car is powered.
“To stay on a 1.5-degree pathway, the manufacturing and supply chain would need to reduce GHG [Greenhouse Gas] emissions by 81 percent by 2032,” the study notes. “This is an enormous task. [...] the largest footprint comes from batteries, steel and iron, and aluminum used in vehicles, more specifically the amount and type of energy used in manufacturing.”
The Verge spoke to Polestar spokesperson Ellen Broomé about the unusual teaming up of two EV manufacturing rivals and what the two companies hoped to achieve:
We have both been frustrated by the lack of an honest, data- and science-led pathway for the car industry to remain in line with [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC’s] 1.5-degree limit, and strongly felt everything was moving too slow,” Polestar spokesperson Ellen Broomé told The Verge.
“This is the first time either of us had seen a report that calculated the remaining carbon budget for the car industry and what it would take to get on track – the results were shocking and sobering,” she added. “It was really clear that electrification alone will not be enough and that we need urgent and collective climate action.”
“This is not a pledge or a forum for endless discussions, but an opportunity for carmakers to acknowledge the data and together start taking action where they can – not everyone might do it all at once but it’s more important we start now where we can,” Broomé said.
The study points out these painful problems are best addressed by the industry as a whole, which makes the partnership between Rivian and Polestar a promising start to these larger efforts toward slashing emissions.