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The Big Idea: Switching to Neutral

after decades of fits and starts, electric vehicles are now squarely in the automotive firmament, with even the combustion-loving ones like Rolls-Royce, Bentley and Lamborghini embracing a battery-powered future. So what now? Step into the climate neutral car.

Most EVs aren’t as clean as the brochures would have you believe, given the huge carbon footprint of battery production, plus the fact that much of the energy grid is still connected to coal-fired power plants. In theory, a carbon neutral car would not only forgo tailpipe emissions, as with a standard EV, but also be zero when it comes to all harmful greenhouse gas emissions, both during production and use.

But according to Brett Smith, director of technology at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan: “There’s so much heavy production going into a vehicle that very few suppliers will be able to meet the target in the next 5 to 10 years.” Smith adds, “To know that a car will never run electricity on coal is decades away in the United States.”

Undeterred, one player in charge is Polestar, with the goal of being the first to release a carbon neutral production car, by 2030. Hans Pehrson, Polestar’s head of drive 0 Project, acknowledges the difficulty. “I really liken this to when JFK said it was time to put a man on the moon,” Pehrson says, adding that “those involved knew they couldn’t do it alone; they needed collaboration.”

Suppliers who have already signed up to the Swedish brand include: SSABa steel manufacturer that has developed a fossil-free version of the alloy, based in Norway Hydropower, which is working on CO2-neutral aluminum. Most importantly, Polestar intends to pull this off without resorting to compensation, a way to cook the environmental books. “The most common form of compensation is to pay someone to plant trees elsewhere,” Pehrson says, “but if we keep the CO2 emissions [parts per million] level will not stop rising.” He is aware that electricity will not be 100 percent clean by the 0 project target date, but emphasizes that for the first time there would be the “possibility” of net zero for consumers.

Also in the neutrality race, car designer Henrik Fisker, who cites 2027 as his team’s deadline “to build a vehicle that is carbon neutral throughout the car’s life cycle.” He divides that series into five parts: upstream sourcing, production, logistics, the use phase and end-of-life recycling. Fisker recognizes the battery as an Achilles’ heel and “looks at innovative ways to obtain as much non-primary, recycled content as possible, including that of the minerals that are still critical to effective batteries.”

Lecedra Welch, environmental sustainability manager at Michigan-based Action group car industry, quickly distinguishes these long-term efforts from greenwashing magic tricks. “Our industry understands the importance of climate change, and companies are actively working with competitors and their suppliers to address these challenges and mitigate risks,” she says. It’s a feeling shared by Smith. “Small automakers with very low volumes are in an intriguing position to do this as a test case exploration,” he says. “It’s pushing the boundaries to find out what the solutions might be.”

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