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April 16, 2019

Are electric cars really reducing CO₂ emissions?

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Henk de Bruin
Sustainability Advisor

As Global Head of Sustainability in a large multinational I have been working on a broad range of topics for many years. Defining the sustainability elements that are relevant for a company and in which parts of the value chain those elements need to be addressed is the first phase. This was followed up by measuring the company’s performance on said elements and identifying possible and continuous improvements, and continuous tracking of results via in- and external reporting to multiple stakeholders. Within Lightyear, that experience is applied in the challenging environment of a fast-growing company focused on contributing to a sustainable society with its products and services. The three subjects discussed are: Carbon Footprint, Circular Economy and Supplier Sustainability.

Carbon Footprint

In our efforts to support the reduction of global warming, the benefits of an electric vehicle with no tailpipe emissions are clear. Those benefits are increased substantially if such a car is extremely energy efficient and to a large extent solar driven, whereby additional charging from the grid can be limited to almost none, depending on geography and average distances driven.

When grid charging is needed, indirect CO2 emissions of electric power stations supplying the grid need to be taken into account in making comparisons with other cars. Those indirect emissions will depend on the fuel type of the powerstation. Fossil fuel powered stations will have higher CO2 emissions if coal is used versus those powered by natural gas for instance. Nuclear power stations are very low on carbon emissions and emissions can even be zero for electricity coming from renewable sources such as hydro, wind or solar. When making comparisons per country or region, this should be taken into account.

For CO2 emissions of electric vehicles, usually the average mix of fuel sources of power stations is used over multiple countries such as the European electricity mix, to give a fair averaged representation in making comparisons with other cars. In the carbon emission terminology ‘well’ and ‘wheel’ are also used. The ‘well’ emission figure is the amount of carbon emissions at the power station level, the ‘wheel’ emission figure is approximately 15% higher because energy losses during transmission are included to transport the energy from the powerstation to an electric car.

Because in almost all processes energy is used, direct and indirect carbon emissions also occur during the generation of raw materials, making subassemblies, assembling the car and the processes related to the repair and or end-of-life of a vehicle. Therefore, all three phases of the life cycle of any vehicle contribute to CO2 emissions, but the use phase is usually the largest. At Lightyear, we are building up our insight of the total carbon footprint of the car in order to guide our efforts to optimize the carbon footprint over the total life cycle of the car.

In the next graph, the different life cycle phases for a number of different cars are given expressed in grams CO2 equivalent per driven kilometer with an average yearly distance of 13.000 kilometers, an European average of CO2 emissions at wheel level of 521 g/ kWh for the electric cars and a lifetime of 12 years.

Compared to a gasoline or diesel car, an electric vehicle has a larger carbon footprint in the production and end-of-life phase caused by the production respectively recycling of the battery pack. The Lightyear One has a slightly lower carbon footprint compared to other electric vehicles for the production phase because of the car’s optimised efficiency that results into a relatively smaller battery pack and the overall lower weight given the size of the car.

In the use phase the CO2 benefits of a highly energy efficient solar driven electric vehicle such as the Lightyear One become crystal clear. Under the same circumstances - an average yearly distance of 13.000 kilometers, CO2 wheel emissions of 521 g/ kWh for the electric cars - the graph below shows the indirect CO2 emissions from the use phase of the Lightyear One, compared to the average of new cars sold. That average amount of CO2 emissions from new cars sold are for more than 95% direct tailpipe emissions because the vast majority of cars today still consists of gasoline and diesel cars.

Circular Economy

At Lightyear, we see the transition from a linear to a circular economy as a necessary and complementary boundary condition. A circular economy aims to decouple economic growth from the use of natural resources and ecosystems by using those resources more effectively. Less materials over lifetime for a functionality simply means lower costs. Moreover, it is a driver for innovation in the areas of materials, component- and product reuse, as well as new circular business models such as providing solutions and services as illustrated in the next picture.

In a circular economy, the more effective use of materials enables us to create more value, both by cost savings and by developing new markets or growing existing ones.

Within Lightyear in our approach for the choice of materials, designing of parts, assembly of the car and the development of business models, we are in the process of incorporating the Circular Economy principles in our way of working.

Supplier Sustainability

Long-term strategic supplier relationships are important to bring our innovations to market. We aim to share with our suppliers a common goal of continuous improvement and operational excellence. At the same time, we expect our suppliers to meet the proper standards in terms of quality, ethics and sustainability and support driving improvements in social and environmental performance in our supply chain. Tools that have been developed aiming to cover that process are, amongst others, the assessment of supplier sustainability performance, management of regulated substances, conflict minerals and, in due course, circular procurement.

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