Article — 24 Nov 2021
During COP26, Volvo admitted increased production emissions in its C40 Recharge model, underlining the need for life cycle assessments (LCAs) to help battery development. Extending LCAs beyond greenhouse gas emissions to resource scarcity and social issues already suggests that the world needs more than just lithium-ion battery technology.
A new report by Gothenburg, Sweden-headquartered carmaker Volvo shows that electric vehicles must still overcome big environmental challenges, even as they reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On November 2, 2021, during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, UK, Volvo published a life cycle assessment (LCA) of emissions from its C40 Recharge electric vehicle.
Emissions across the vehicle’s lifetime are always lower than a fossil fuel alternative, if the C40 Recharge is driven for at least 110,000 kilometres. However, emissions from production, the materials and battery of a fully electric car are nearly 70% higher than a similar internal combustion engine model. “Even if charged with renewable electricity, a C40 Recharge is still responsible for 27 tonnes of CO2 over its lifetime,” admitted Jonas Otterheim, head of climate action at Volvo.
With Volvo planning to be a fully electric car company by 2030, it is now seeking to further reduce this figure. Two key targets are batteries, which comprise 28% of the C40 Recharge’s production emissions, and steel, which comprises 19%. Volvo is therefore collaborating with two other Swedish companies, steelmaker SSAB to develop fossil-fuel free steel, and battery manufacturer Northvolt to produce batteries using 100% renewable energy.
The report shows LCAs’s power to promote transparency and help people understand electric vehicles’ true environmental impact. They also enable carmakers like Volvo to “target carbon intensive areas that need to be addressed”, said Otterheim. “This insight is critical if the industry is to decarbonise its value chain. However, greater availability of clean energy is vital if this is to be achieved. This is why we called on governments and energy companies during COP26 to increase the accessibility to clean energy.”
Jaume Alberola, sustainability technical officer at sustainable engineering advisors LOMARTOV in Valencia, Spain, agrees that LCAs will play a vital role in rolling out electric vehicles. “If we want to avoid mistakes, we must ensure that the change leads to the cleanest possible technology,” Alberola said. “For that purpose, life cycle assessment becomes vital.”
Alberola stresses that Volvo LCA’s only looks at greenhouse gas emissions. As such it may fail to identify excessive use of scarce resources, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. “We are extracting a wider variety of materials and those materials will probably put other environmental areas under stress,” Alberola said. “We may end turning from one problem to another. We should ensure that we don’t cause any impact too costly for us in the long term.”
LCAs can potentially help avoid these problems too, notes LOMARTOV’s senior technical coordinator Isaac Herraiz. As well as assessing existing products and processes, they can help identify hotspots for further research and innovation to diminish environment impact. For example, incorporating LCAs into early-stage battery research can help reduce the use of scarce resources. “That way we can improve the final sustainability footprint of the batteries,” says Herraiz.
LOMARTOV is using this approach as part of ASTRABAT, a European research project that aims to enable optimal solid-state batteries that are compatible with mass vehicle production. LOMARTOV is implementing its LCAs right from the start of ASTRABAT’s design phase, spanning environmental issues from carbon footprint to resource scarcity.
“We go hand in hand with the researchers to support the decisions in selection of materials and manufacturing routes [considering the] environmental impacts, in an eco-design approach” says Herraiz. “That way we can truly improve the final sustainability footprint of the batteries.” Although no results have yet been published, LOMARTOV expect that ASTRABAT will also improve the amount of electricity that batteries can store per kilogramme.
Another reason for caution over LCAs comes because how they are conducted can limit their reliability, noted Thea Riofrancos, associate professor of political science at Providence College, Rhode Island, US. LCAs “are now part of a competitive dynamic between firms”, which she called “green capitalism”. “But we also see companies funding consultants to carry out lifecycle assessments, which introduces some conflicts of interest, and might undermine the rigour of the research.” Riofrancos said that LCAs are most useful when conducted by objective scholarly or academic research centres, independent and well-resourced public sector regulatory bodies, or experts hired by communities affected by environmental problems.
There are also new social problems arising from the transition to electric vehicles. For example, Riofrancos noted that particularly in Latin America violence between people seeking to defend their environment and mining companies is growing. “Whether we’re talking about copper, or cobalt, or lithium or nickel, there are also many allegations against companies involved in that subset of extractive sectors,” she said. Europe is also affected by social issues, for example with protests against a new lithium mine in Serbia in September 2021, Riofrancos highlighted.
A newer form of LCA, called a social LCA, integrates such issues as well as environmental impacts. As such they might help navigate new problems, but their intention also depends on who conducts them. Riofrancos connected social LCAs to a concept called the ‘social licence to operate’, a controversial idea that she says connotes corporate interests trying to avoid protests over their activities. “Some scholars refer to this as social engineering,” she explained, with companies seeking to know how to operate so dissent does not occur.
Social LCAs will become important if EU approves its new battery regulation, comments LOMARTOV’s Alberola. As currently proposed, the regulation means that producers must establish supply chain due diligence policies for cobalt, lithium, graphite and nickel. It includes social risk categories such as occupational health and safety, labour rights, child labour, human rights, and community rights. Alberola therefore expects that social LCAs will become “an important tool to measure the social risk categories in the supply chain”.
Taking such problems seriously will challenge the way many of us expect decarbonisation to happen. Already, LCAs suggest that the world needs alternative energy storage technologies due to resource scarcity. “Lithium-ion batteries may have to coexist with other technologies and recycling facilities of critical Li-ion battery materials should be deployed because of the limited availability of lithium,” Alberola underlines.
By Andy Extance
Cover image by Volvo Car Group, Corporate Communications, SE-405 31 Gothenburg.