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The Electric Vehicle Supply Chain Has a Dirty Secret

A conveyor deposits raw aluminum ore onto a stockpile as a Caterpillar Inc. excavator passes at the Northam Platinum Ltd. Booysendal platinum mine outside the town of Lydenburg in Mpumalanga, South Africa, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Booysendal will use a system developed by an Austrian company that builds ski lifts to transport the ore up a 30 degree incline out of a valley for processing, instead of the traditional conveyer used throughout South Africa or the more expensive option of trucking.
A conveyor deposits raw aluminum ore onto a stockpile as a Caterpillar Inc. excavator passes at the Northam Platinum Ltd. Booysendal platinum mine outside the town of Lydenburg in Mpumalanga, South Africa, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018. Booysendal will use a system developed by an Austrian company that builds ski lifts to transport the ore up a 30 degree incline out of a valley for processing, instead of the traditional conveyer used throughout South Africa or the more expensive option of trucking. (Bloomberg)
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As the world focuses on the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow, the dawn of the electric vehicle era is sure to be touted as a major solution to a severe emissions problem. What few policy makers and business leaders seem to acknowledge, though, is just how dirty a process making these cars has become.

The transport sector is responsible for almost a quarter of direct carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fuel. Of that, passenger cars account for 45%. The challenge goes beyond what comes out of the tailpipe: Every step of making a vehicle’s 20,000 to 30,000 parts, which involves several thousands tons of aluminum, steel and other materials, produces emissions.

EVs were supposed to be the answer to this. But while cleaner cars may eventually solve the tailpipe emissions problem, they don’t address all the damage done to the environment while making them. Compared with traditional internal combustion engine, or ICE, vehicles, greenhouse gases released while manufacturing battery-electric cars account for a higher portion of life-cycle emissions. As the EV hype gains momentum, battery production and research is powering ahead and sales are growing. That means material emissions are going to rise to more than 60% by 2040 from 18% today, according to consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. 

“The importance of supply chain decarbonization cannot be ignored,” Greenpeace noted in a report published this week, which examines car companies’ commitments and actions. “Accounting for about 20% of the life cycle of [greenhouse gas] emissions, decarbonizing the production phase of a car is harder than the use phase.” 

Consider this: As technologists work to make better EV batteries, one issue is getting more energy into a smaller, lighter powerpack. In their current form, these units end up becoming heavy, and increasing the total weight of the car, which in turn requires more energy to drive. To deal with this, carmakers have started turning to aluminum for light-weight body designs, with EVs using 45% more of the metal than traditional vehicles. Emissions from aluminum have started rising, too, because it’s energy-intensive to mine and produce.

Then, there’s making the powerpack. Materials used for essential parts of the battery are even more carbon intensive. Manufacturing requires “more energy and produces more emissions than” a conventional one “because of the electric vehicles’ batteries,” according to a 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation report. 

Even more basic, manufacturing of the body and chassis account for around half of the emissions produced from cradle-to-gate — that is, the carbon impact from raw material extraction to a completed vehicle. The metals used both for ICE vehicles and battery-electric ones make up 53% and 47% of cars’ manufacturing carbon footprint, according to the Greenpeace report. Meanwhile, as companies try to make batteries that can take cars further, they are using nickel, cobalt and manganese, which generate still more greenhouse gases.

Despite this, we don’t frequently hear about the scale of supply chain emissions. If policy makers and car manufacturers don’t start focusing on this soon, they risk losing the battle with emissions targets altogether. It’s not like we haven’t known about the risks — warnings have been published in recent years — it’s that important players effectively have chosen to ignore them and stick to simpler rhetoric.

The best path forward starts with better disclosure. If we don’t know how big the problem is, we don’t have to acknowledge it. In theory, Scope 3 disclosures, which Greenpeace defines as “indirect emissions that are a result of an organization’s operations, but are not owned or controlled by the company,” should help do that. The organization notes that the high greenhouse gas emissions in the car manufacturing supply chain are “not even properly quantified by carmakers, because of poor disclosure of their suppliers’ [greenhouse gas] emissions data (Scope 3),” adding that half of the companies do not disclose this data, or only do so partially. 

Big auto companies and EV upstarts aren’t under any pressure to divulge this information. Investors aren’t asking, so manufacturers aren’t telling – or may not even know. To gauge how much progress is being made (or not), these numbers should be made part of the mandatory disclosure.

None of this is to say we are doomed — there will always be emissions. But we now need to go beyond the big, lofty goals and get into the weeds of realistic solutions. These should also include battery recycling, prioritizing types that use less carbon-intensive materials, or emission caps on the battery and electric vehicle manufacturing process. Small companies like Nano One Materials Corp. and Euro Manganese Inc. are thinking about how to decarbonize supply chains for battery parts. Other, bigger players need to catch on, too. Without a sharper focus, we’ll just be chasing ambition in a much hotter world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.

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