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[Stakeholder] 'Win-win-win': cleaner cars through better environmental impact assessment

Earlier this year, the Council of the EU adopted a set of measures aimed at curbing vehicle emissions to combat climate change. Among the most known measures are CO2 emission reductions of 55% for new cars and, from 2035 onwards, 100% emissions reduction.

Among the least known measures is the aim to develop a common EU methodology to assess the full life cycle of CO2 emissions of cars and vans — in other words, a way to factor in the emissions of every step in the production, operational and end-of-life cycle of a new vehicle. The methodology is to be developed by the EU Commission and delivered by 2025.

As you might imagine, this is as near to a herculean task as one gets, simply due to the amount of variables and parameters that go into such an assessment.

Such a life cycle assessment is not just how much greenhouse gas a car emits while on the road. In an ideal world, every bolt, every wire, every fitting and everything else that makes up a car (about 30,000 parts on average) needs to be traced from raw material to being fitted into the vehicle to being dismantled, its surrounding emissions tracked and added to the tally.

From crashes to gases

Since 1996, the organisation Euro NCAP (New Car Assessment Programme) has been testing the crash safety of new vehicles entering the European market. Over the years, the organisation has developed a five star rating system for safety, making it easy for consumers to check if their vehicle will actually protect them in a collision.

Progressively, Euro NCAP has added more and more tests, including testing automated safety features — in contrast to the car safety legislation, which takes more time to evolve. This evolution gives manufacturers an incentive to improve, to keep a good star rating, as some vehicles with the lowest score have been known to be taken off the market altogether.

After 2019, under the name Green NCAP, the organisation added a similar evolving assessment for vehicle emissions, testing cars for gas and particle emissions in multiple environments and under different driving styles — and attaching a similar star rating.

Like with the crash test, emissions tests like these can help consumers more easily make environmentally friendly choices, and even compare cars with different powertrains.

Interestingly, the organisation has also been developing their own life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology. Aleksandar Damyanov of Green NCAP has been working on this over the past years, and can share the intricacies and complications that go into developing a method like this.

LCA

“Life cycle assessment (LCA) can be performed for a lot of impact categories, from eutrophication, to water footprint, to toxicity and many more. We are concentrating on the two currently most important aspects for vehicles ̶ greenhouse gas emissions and primary energy demand,” Damyanov says.

Even by limiting the scope, the number of factors that a full LCA has to take into account is considerable. First, there’s the sourcing, production and shipping of every single part that goes into making a car. Damyanov takes the example of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, because it needs both a battery and a combustion engine, as well as two different types of energy.

“The main part is the chassis of the vehicle that needs to be produced. On the other side, there are the powertrain and the battery. Then we have a lot of electronics, a lot of cables, we have tires, we have different materials. So now it’s important to know what shares of different materials they have, how much aluminium or how much steel, where do these materials come from? And how are they produced? What are the shares of recycled material and renewable energy used in the manufacturing processes?”

Damyanov explains that Green NCAP uses a mix of assumptions and scientific data to make an estimate of the emissions and energy use that go into the production phase — but also the expectation that more hard data will become available in the future.

Second, there’s the so-called operational phase, when a car is being used on the road. Here, data from Green NCAP emissions testing is combined with estimates of the emissions related to energy supply and those arising from the need for maintenance and replacement parts.

In the operational phase, especially for electric and hybrid vehicles, factors like a country’s electricity mix and share of renewable energy production play an important role. A large electric vehicle that needs a lot of energy, can overall be used with less total emissions in a country that generates a lot of energy with low CO2-intensity. It is essential to consider the energy mix in a forward-looking way to reflect the lifespan of a vehicle. This is, of course, based on forecasts, but it is immensely important in discussions because the cars being purchased today are responsible for future emissions generated during their operation. In other words, this also means that the life cycle environmental impact of new vehicles depends on the reduction of greenhouse gas intensive energy supply in the future, directly pointing at the responsibility of authorities to keep up the tempo of defossilisation.

Finally, there’s the end-of-life phase, when a car is dismantled or destroyed. “So, actually, the end-of-life phase is more complicated than the production process, because right now, all we have is a prediction, because scientific observation of end of life treatment is very limited,” Damyanov says.

He explains that very little data is available about how a car is actually disposed of — what parts get shredded, what parts get recycled and what parts are sent off to other parts of the world for dumping or dismantling.

Luckily, recycling and circularity transparency requirements are part of the Green Deal, Damyanov explains. But there’s still a long way to go.

“Everyone’s speaking about battery recycling, but that has not yet gained momentum. I have spoken personally to companies that recycle automotive and industrial batteries, and interestingly those are challenging to recycle. The employees open containers full of batteries and devices and they do not know what’s inside. So at first they do not know how to recycle it exactly. It’s uneconomical, and this explains why a lot of our electronic waste is sent away to other continents, today we don’t recycle a lot here,” Damyanov says.

A virtuous cycle

More standardisation and more transparency about the full production process could help with the problem of disposal and recycling — if more is known about how a battery or another product is constructed, it’s easier to take apart.

And even better, if there are better ways to reuse a used car battery, that might lead to improvements in the production process that help to reuse it in the end.

“If I know that I need to recycle my product later or make its recyclability as easy as possible, then I will also take measures to produce it in a way corresponding to such targets,” Damyanov explains.

The organisation hopes the emissions star rating and the LCA combined will start pushing manufacturers towards better environmental performance, across the full life cycle of the vehicle.

For the Euro NCAP safety tests, this has already been proven to be the case. Only rarely does a car introduced to the European market score less than five stars, underscoring the willingness of manufacturers to improve safety for a good rating.

Nonetheless, the road is still long, and there are many complicating factors — just take the fact that cars on average are getting bigger and heavier, and not just due to batteries.

“People buy more and more SUVs, people like SUVs. Vehicles are thus getting heavier. And just thinking that if the SUV is electric, it will change everything. This is not the case. Mass is the enemy of the environment. Heavier vehicles need more energy to be produced and to move, they have higher tyre abrasion, more braking particle emissions, and generally higher resource usage. So we need to reduce mass, and luckily people are more aware of this.”

For most people, the many factors that go into determining the overall environmentally friendliness of a new vehicle might be too daunting to get too much into the details. The tools that Green NCAP offers don’t only make this easier to assess, but could also lead to better behaviour from manufacturers.

Damyanov: “This could be a win-win-win situation for everyone who is playing ball here.”

Green NCAP’s LCA tool for consumers is already available on their website for a variety of car models. It’s fun to play around with — and could help settle arguments about if it’s better to buy an old used car and keep it on the road, or a new car.

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