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How automakers can accelerate the shift to a sustainable future

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Over the past few years, the global conversation about climate change has shifted. The increasing intensity of natural disasters linked to changing weather patterns has generated a growing sense of urgency among consumers. That urgency has translated into more demand for sustainable products, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear.

When it comes to cars, consumers are putting the pedal to the metal in pursuit of sustainability. In the U.S. alone, the number of electric vehicles more than tripled between 2016 and 2020. Automakers are responding to this demand with ambitious promises to increase production of electric vehicles in the coming years.

Replacing carbon-spewing cars and trucks with electric vehicles marks a step in the right direction. But there’s more the auto industry can be doing to move toward climate neutrality. At the same time, automakers’ quest for sustainability shouldn’t overshadow another important reason people buy cars: the sheer pleasure of driving a well-designed, high-performance vehicle.


For the past three decades, transportation and electricity generation have been the two largest producers of carbon dioxide in the U.S. The good news? Moving away from cars that run on fossil fuels will help eliminate the amount of CO2 vehicles create once they leave the showroom. But that doesn’t mean hopping into an electric vehicle shrinks a driver’s carbon footprint to zero. The fact is, making electric cars is still a carbon-intensive process. That’s something manufacturers increasingly need to pay attention to. Fortunately, achieving net-zero emissions in manufacturing is possible. But getting there means focusing on every step of the supply chain, from the parts and materials used to build a car to the electricity used to make vehicles.

Electric performance car brand Polestar knows this journey well: This year, the company announced its intention to produce a climate-neutral car by 2030. Moving beyond emissions has meant acknowledging that any material the manufacturer sources has a carbon footprint before it shows up on the receiving dock. Without knowing what that carbon footprint looks like, there’s no way to reach the goal of building carbon-neutral cars. Recently, Polestar teamed with blockchain provider Circulor to trace the carbon footprint of the cobalt used in the Swedish carmaker’s batteries. Recycling matters, too: Polestar is actively developing innovative, circular design features that offer another opportunity to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the number of components and materials manufacturers need to source in the first place.


Automakers need to take a long-term view of sustainability. In theory, an automaker could reduce its emissions profile over the short term without even abandoning internal combustion engine technology, for example, by offsetting its carbon production by planting trees or investing in renewable energy. While these measures produce short-term net gains, they likely aren’t enough to eliminate carbon emissions over the longer term.

What does that long-term view look like? The first step is to conduct a life-cycle assessment (LCA) on every vehicle made, to get a complete picture of the net carbon emitted from the factory floor to the end of the vehicle’s life. Polestar conducted its first LCA on its electric fastback Polestar 2 in 2020, so it could compare its lifetime emissions to that of the Volvo XC40, an internal-combustion vehicle built on the same platform.

This process also creates a transparent goal: Bring that baseline number down to zero—or as close to it as possible at any given milestone in the path toward net-zero carbon emissions. In the meantime, automakers can also use these benchmarks to measure their progress toward their sustainability targets. Demonstrating clear goals—and showing progress toward those goals—is important information for consumers as they increasingly consider sustainability issues before opening their wallets. It’s becoming increasingly common for food and fashion products to declare their sustainability; Polestar is following suit with its electric vehicles in a bid to expand the practice into the auto industry. For instance, buyers considering the Polestar 2 model can review a wealth of information about the vehicle’s carbon footprint and the environmental impact of many of the materials used in its production.

Making clear disclosures about a vehicle’s carbon footprint an industry standard is important because transparency fosters trust. The industry has a responsibility to give consumers the tools they need to make environmentally friendly choices. “As climate change has demonstrated, the transport sector cannot simply do the bare minimum or treat sustainability as a ‘tick the box’ exercise,” notes Fredrika Klaren, Polestar’s head of sustainability. “In the quest towards net zero, we need to be challenging ourselves and others to do better.”

The clearer automakers can be about the level of emissions related to vehicle production and operation, as well as their plans to continue to reduce those emissions, the greater the incentives will become to produce more sustainable vehicles sooner.


Rising consumer demand for sustainable vehicles will only help grow the market so much. In other words, electric vehicles can’t only be good for the environment. They also need to be fun to drive and beautiful to look at. Most consumers won’t choose an eco-friendly car that sacrifices…

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How automakers can accelerate the shift to a sustainable future

2021-11-17 14:22:15

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