Carbon Reduction Commitments: Automakers Edition

Car Companies Respond to Climate Change with Carbon Reduction Commitments

The Call to Action

Following the 2015  Paris Agreement there is an overall increase in concern with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions among the public and demand for actionable carbon-reduction commitments. GHGs are the main driver of climate change. Carbon dioxide emissions released via the burning of fossil fuels are of particular concern, as they are the primary contributor to GHG emissions. Together these gases absorb and trap the sun’s heat inside earth’s atmosphere and ultimately warm our climate. 

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty signed by 196 parties at the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP21). The main goal of this treaty is to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) by the end of this century. This is per scientists recommendations to prevent the worst effects of climate change. 

In order to do this, countries, especially in the Global North, must take drastic measures to reduce their contributing GHG emissions. 

Currently, transportation is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions next to electricity and heat. In the U.S., transportation contributes 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. This has led car companies worldwide to start taking responsibility for the impact of their industry by exploring less-harmful alternatives.

Manufacturers’ Carbon Reduction Commitments

Net Zero by 2050

One of the largest and most common carbon reduction commitments among automotive companies is reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Net-zero means reducing GHG emissions to as close as zero as possible. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that reaching this goal by 2050 is the safest option to avoid the most harmful effects of climate change. In a net-zero world all remaining emissions will be reabsorbed from the atmosphere by the Earth’s oceans and trees, reaching a point of de facto equilibrium.

This target requires companies to reduce emissions from their downstream supply chains and manufacturing processes. These two  moments within the larger life cycle of a vehicle are singled out as they are what automakers have the most control over. To work towards net-zero many companies are focusing on switching to renewable energy resources. For example, Hyundai vows to convert to hydrogen power by 2040 in order to achieve this. Volkswagen is also working towards using renewable energy resources. They are currently investing in two offshore wind farms to meet their goals.

Fleet Electrification

Another carbon reduction commitment car companies are making is to increase the production and sales of electric vehicles (EVs). Companies such as Volvo, Porsche, Volkswagen, and Subaru are committed to increasing the amount of EVs in their fleet to around 35-40 percent (Volkswagen, Subaru, Volvo) to as much as 80 percent (Porsche) by 2030. Currently Subaru is at 1.1 percent for EV sales (January 2022). Volkswagen is at 6.9 percent as of 2022 meanwhile, Volvo is at 10.9 percent. Porsche is the highest out of these four companies for the 2022 year. Their U.S. EV sales were reported at 15 percent.

EV Development

Separate but related, luxury car companies such as Lamborghini are also committing to their first full electric vehicle, set to be released in 2028. Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions from burning fossil fuels. Even when accounting for the electricity it takes to charge them and the mining of the precious metals that such batteries require, they still have a smaller carbon footprint than gas powered vehicles.

Land Stewardship

Some car companies are going the extra mile to reduce their carbon footprint and create a sustainable environment. Subaru has a partnership with the National Park Conservation Association and the National Park Foundation to reduce waste through the Don’t Feed the Landfills Zero-Landfill Initiative. They also are committed to replanting one million trees in national forests that were destroyed by wildfires. The thinking behind this initiative is that trees will help absorb harmful emissions from the atmosphere. 

Life Cycle Analyses

Meanwhile, Lexus is focusing on “Life Cycle Thinking”. This takes into account all of the resources consumed during the production and usage process, covering the vehicle from ‘cradle-to-grave’. This approach also attempts to account for the indirect impacts on the environment and human-health due to the life cycle of a vehicle.

In addition to this encompassing approach, Lexus strives to achieve zero waste and zero emissions. In order to become zero waste they are focusing on reducing the use of heavy metals and recycling end of life (EOL) vehicles.

EOL vehicles are when a vehicle gets to a point where its usefulness is ultimately expended due to age, mileage, condition, cost of repair or failure to pass emissions tests. Recycling these sorts of vehicles is an effective tactic in getting the oldest, most highly polluting vehicles off the road. This is one aspect of a largest effort to decrease the amount of carbon in our environment.

Final Thoughts on Carbon Reduction Commitments

Left is a picture from a protest in Melbourne in 2019. This person is highlighting a very important carbon reduction commitment that many are working towards.

Overall, car companies are stepping forward in attempts to alleviate some of the burden their products are creating on the environment. In order to reduce their carbon footprint, companies are recycling vehicle parts, increasing the use of renewable energy, and increasing the production of EVs to decrease the amount of GHGs their enterprises emit into the atmosphere. Using these methods car companies are hopeful that they will achieve their commitment to reach carbon net-zero by 2050 though many remain skeptical. At this time, unless we see a rapid increase in the uptake of EVs by consumers, scientists believe we will not be able to hit our targets. We currently do not have the technology necessary to produce these vehicles at the scale this issue requires. Deployment of all available clean and efficient energy technologies must be done immediately to hit the net zero by 2050 goal.

Commitments aside, an old adage seems particularly applicable here: Actions speak louder than words.