Is the electric car really more climate-friendly than a new car with a modern combustion engine? Hardly any issue is discussed as passionately as this one, from talk shows to bar stools. At least one thing is certain: if an electric car is charged with green electricity, it does not produce any climate-damaging carbon dioxide emissions during operation. But the carbon footprint of an electric car doesn’t just start when the proud new owner presses the start button for the first time. This footprint already starts in the manufacturing process.
With energy efficiency and the use of green electricity, Volkswagen is therefore systematically reducing CO2 emissions in production. Only the carbon dioxide that the manufacturer and its suppliers are not yet able to avoid during production is subsequently offset – for example with certified climate protection projects in the Indonesian rainforest. In this way, the Volkswagen brand is already able to deliver the Volkswagen ID.3 and ID.4 to customers with a neutral carbon footprint.
For the calculation to work out completely, all the values have to be right. It is crucial to provide the production of each component with a serious CO2 value. Volkswagen also goes through all the components of a car step-by-step to reduce their climate impact during production. The experts start with the parts whose production emits particularly high levels of CO2: the battery system, steel and aluminum.
Based on the Paris climate target, Volkswagen has set itself the goal of being CO2 neutral as a company in balance sheet terms by 2050; by 2025, the carbon footprint of the passenger car and light commercial vehicle fleet is to be reduced by 30 percent in balance sheet terms compared with 2015. Emissions from the entire life cycle are taken into account, including the entire production value chain, vehicle use by customers, and recycling. The e-mobility strategy is the central technology for achieving these targets.
Dr. Marko Gernuks, Dr. Georg Bäuml, Dr. Maximilian Schüler, Dr, Tobias Lösche-ter Horst, Dr. Lars Hofmann and Dr. Philipp Halubek – all of them employees from Volkswagen’s Technical Development department – have described exactly how Volkswagen is implementing this. They came to a clear conclusion: an electric car in Europe is already significantly more climate-friendly than a combustion engine over its entire life cycle. This should also be of interest to the talk shows and the regulars sat on their bar stools. Here is the result of the analysis in detail:
A meaningful carbon footprint requires robust data, methods and independent verification
The methodology for calculating life cycle assessments – and, as part of this, CO2 balances (greenhouse gas balances) – is based on the globally valid ISO 14040 standard for life cycle assessment (LCA). This standard stipulates that all relevant processes over the entire life cycle must be taken into account. The procedure and results must be verified by an independent expert. Volkswagen has been preparing life cycle assessments since 1996, for the first time in connection with the Golf III, and has continuously optimized the methods, processes and data basis since then: Starting from the parts list with around 5,000 parts and the material database, the data is imported into the LCA software. There, the resource input and emissions are calculated for all materials and processes and aggregated as a result for the production of the vehicle. Ultimately, a life cycle assessment model for vehicles comprises of around 40,000 processes, which then map the entire value chain for the production of the vehicle.
Representative and up-to-date data are absolutely essential for a realistic result. Volkswagen uses a database that is updated annually, comprising of several thousand data records, which are regularly checked. This is supplemented by specific data from the most important suppliers. The company subject the entire balance sheet of a vehicle to several days of testing by an independent expert with a final certification. The ID.3 balance sheet was certified by TÜV Nord.
The e-vehicle already has a superior CO₂ balance on average across Europe today
Using current models in the compact class, Volkswagen created TÜV-certified balance sheets to compare an electric vehicle (Battery Electric Vehicle – BEV) with a respective modern gasoline and diesel model. To ensure a fair comparison, the models were selected so that equipment and performance are as similar as possible.
Fig. 1 shows that the production of a BEV currently causes significantly higher CO2 emissions than the production of conventional vehicles. The manufacturing phase includes all CO2 emissions of the cradle-to-gate value chain, i.e. starting with the extraction of raw materials, through the manufacture of semi-finished products and components to the production at the Volkswagen plants.
Despite the higher emissions in the manufacturing phase, the BEV then achieves significant savings over a lifetime of 200,000 km, with an average European electricity mix, compared with diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles.
Fig. 2 clearly shows that in the case of BEVs, the production of the Li-ion battery is the most decisive factor for the carbon footprint. Not only is the energy use in cell production important, but also the upstream processes in the supply chain are relevant: Raw material production, cathode material production and the graphite for the anode have a significant impact on the carbon footprint.
Compared with the battery used in the e-Golf, the new generation of batteries in the ID.3, mark an enormous advancement. With the new cathode material (6-2-2), the battery capacity has been increased at the same material cost compared with the previous generation (1-1-1). At the same time, we agreed with our battery cell supplier to use electricity from renewable energies. These two measures have reduced the specific carbon footprint from 110kg CO2/kWh to just 62kg CO2/kWh (see Fig. 3).
There is also great reduction potential in the rest of the value chain, for example in cathode material production or graphite for the anode. In addition to the potential in the battery supply chain, we are currently analyzing measures for other hotspots such as steel and aluminum. At its own BEV production site in Zwickau, Volkswagen already purchase electricity from renewable energies.
Electricity from renewable energies in the use phase is the most important building block
Even more important than improving the supply chain is the BEV’s charging power in the usage phase. Even with today’s European electricity mix, the BEV significantly reduces CO2 emissions. With the further planned energy turnaround, the electricity mix will continuously become lower in CO2, which will have a correspondingly positive effect on the BEV’s CO2 balance. No other energy source has already been decarbonized as much as electricity, and for no other energy source is a further decarbonization so clearly outlined. This makes the BEV the technology that is already showing the greatest climate effect today and whose CO2 reduction will be even greater in the future.
The e-vehicle has the best drive efficiency
Since renewable electricity is a valuable resource, it should be used as efficiently as possible. For mobility applications, direct electricity use in the form of battery-electric driving is more efficient than all other alternatives. Therefore, locally generated, CO2-neutral electricity should be used with priority in BEVs (and plug-in hybrid vehicles – PHEVs). Economic analyses of different energy sources and drives, including possible imports of eFuels or eH2 from sun- and wind-rich regions, also show that battery-electric driving is the most cost-effective solution for the majority of our customers.
Decarbonization with e-vehicles is realistic and specific
E-mobility already enables a significant reduction in CO2 emissions in road traffic. The production of the BEV has a major influence. There have already been significant CO2 improvements, particularly in the battery, and further potential is seen, which Volkswagen will push with its partners in the value chain.
The use of green electricity in the usage phase has an even greater effect – with green Naturstrom electricity from Volkswagen, individual customers can already drive in an almost CO2-neutral manner today. To make this effect as widespread as possible, the energy turnaround must be driven forward further and quickly by policymakers and electricity producers. E-mobility makes it possible to achieve a significant CO2 effect with technology that is already available today, and thus makes an important contribution by Volkswagen on the way to achieving the Paris climate targets.