Volvo hits out at rivals over climate-neutral claims for electric cars

‘Offsetting is a cop-out’ says Polestar electric car boss

Volvo’s spinoff electric car brand, Polestar, has kicked off a war of words with rival car makers over just how ‘clean’ their electric cars really are.

Polestar, which has not yet launched in the Irish market, says that as part of its Polestar Zero programme, it’s going to make electric cars that are ‘climate-neutral’ by 2030. Which might be a big confusing for many potential car buyers - aren’t electric cars climate-neutral already?

No, they are not. While an electric car is indeed free from exhaust and CO2 emissions (although not free of particulate emissions from brakes and tyres) at the point of use, there is an amount of carbon-emissions ‘baked in’ to each car by the time it reaches a dealership. Those emissions are the ones triggered by the electricity used in the factory that made the car. By the electricity used by the companies that supplied parts and components. By the mining of metals such as cobalt and lithium, which are needed in an electric car’s battery.

When it launched the ID.3 electric hatchback last year, Volkswagen proclaimed that each car would arrive at a dealership in fully carbon-neutral trim, thanks to efficiencies in the way the factory, in Zwickau in Germany, works. Even the container ship that transports finished ID.3s out from continental Europe is fuelled by waste vegetable oil, for an extra bit of circular-economy goodness. VW did admit, though, that some emissions of carbon were inevitable in the build process, and that it would compensate for those through carbon-offsetting projects, such as tree-planting.

Now, Polestar is taking a distinct sideswipe at such claims. "Offsetting is a cop-out," said Polestar chief executive Thomas Ingenlath. "By pushing ourselves to create a completely climate-neutral car, we are forced to reach beyond what is possible today. We will have to question everything, innovate and look to exponential technologies as we design towards zero."

That criticism was backed up by Fredrika Klarén, Polestar’s head of sustainability. “We’re electric, so we don’t have to worry about combustion engines producing toxic emissions - but that doesn’t mean our job is done. We will now work to eradicate all emissions stemming from production. Now is an historic and exciting time for car makers, an opportunity to seize the moment, do better and dare to build the dream of climate-neutral, circular and beautiful cars.”

Carbon offsetting - paying people to plant forests or re-wild areas of the planet, so that new plants can in theory soak up the carbon you’re emitting - has proven a controversial policy in recent years. While it’s a basically a decent idea, many have accused it of being ‘greenwashing’ - allowing people to continue polluting and emitting, but with a clean conscience.

According to an investigation carried out by the European Commission, far too many carbon reduction projects are unlikely to achieve that which they claim. In fact, the report rather bluntly says that: "Overall, our results suggest that 85 per cent of the projects covered in this analysis and 73 per cent of the potential 2013-2020 Certified Emissions Reduction (CER) supply have a low likelihood that emission reductions are additional and are not over-estimated. Only two per cent of the projects and seven per cent of potential CER supply have a high likelihood of ensuring that emission reductions are additional and are not over-estimated."

Mike Childs, from Friends Of The Earth says that the problem is that you have to show that the reductions are genuine reductions, and not just things that would have happened anyway.

“That’s more difficult to identify than you’d think, because you need to have a crystal ball to identify what will happen without the offset cash” says Childs. “For example, the study for the European Commission basically said most energy-related projects are likely to happen anyway because there is already a strong demand for energy and a market that will pay. And under the international Paris Climate Change Agreement, governments have already pledged to reduce emissions and therefore will need to ensure many of the typical offset projects go ahead anyway, so they won’t be in addition.

“Secondly, the offset project must permanently lock away the emissions. Tree planting is a very popular offset scheme, largely because it’s a lot cheaper than other schemes. But sadly, trees can burn down - just look at the horrendous recent fires - be killed by pests - a university study showed? tree deaths by pests in the USA are equal to the emissions of 5 million cars every year - or chopped down to make way for farming, roads, and so on. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for tree planting at Friends of the Earth. But to be a viable offset project, the carbon must be locked away for thousands of years and tree planting or peatland restoration can’t guarantee this.”

Polestar agrees with this general trend, saying: “Environmental experts have warned that offsetting is not sustainable in the long run. Questions around the long-term carbon-storage capacity of forests and soils remain, as a forest might be logged, devastated by fire or altered by climate change.”

Volkswagen, for its part, acknowledges a general feeling of ‘lots done, more to do’ when it comes to the carbon and climate-neutrality of its cars. “The production of an electric car produces significantly more CO2 than a vehicle with a classic petrol or diesel engine - on average 1.5 times more.

Compared to conventional drives, electric cars therefore have a disadvantage in the CO2 balance right from the start. Consistent climate protection must therefore start early. Optimisation of the battery becomes apparent quickly: If green electricity is used to manufacture the batteries, the environmental impact drops significantly” said VW in a statement. “Measures implemented had already reduced CO2-emissions by a total of 66 per cent compared with 2010. There have been and still are many projects and dozens of good examples of this. The plant in Zwickau, for example, is partly supplied by Volkswagen Kraftwerks GmbH with green electricity, a purely natural form of electricity. This comes from hydropower plants, wind farms and solar parks and is TÜV-certified.”

VW also says that it sees the potential for a one-third cut in its production CO2 emissions in the immediate term, with more to follow in the future, so that by 2030, it might well be able to match Polestar’s climate-neutrality claim.

As far as production is concerned, making the car’s battery accounts for some 43 per cent of total emissions. The steel and aluminium used in the car’s chassis and body account for 24 per cent of its pre-delivery emissions.