A Key Issue for Climate Change – What Passenger Cars Are Made Of

When you see a new car, you might think of the speed it can attain, the sound system on offer, the upholstery, or its range, if electric. But have you ever stopped to think about the greenhouse gas emissions created by its manufacture—including mining the metals and moulding the plastics that go into its construction?

In the transport sector, one way to reduce greenhouse gases is to use fewer and recycled materials—a process experts call “material efficiency”.

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Ante Hamersmit)

What is material efficiency?

Material efficiency means using less materials to provide the same level of well-being. It is measured by the amount of service obtained per unit of material use. Materials include biomass, cement, fossil fuels, metals, non-metallic minerals, plastics and wood.

Resource efficiency encompasses material efficiency, but is a broader term which includes materials, water, energy and land. The Global Resources Outlook 2019 of the International Resource Panel defines it as achieving higher outputs with lower inputs.

New report—new conclusions

The International Resource Panel was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2007 to build and share the knowledge needed to improve our use of resources worldwide.

It recently published a new report titled Resource Efficiency and Climate Change: Material Efficiency Strategies for a Low-Carbon Future. Commissioned by the G7 countries, it shows that natural resource extraction and processing account for more than 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress, and around half of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The report points to opportunities to reduce these impacts through material efficiencies in homes and cars.

Climate mitigation efforts have traditionally focused on enhancing energy efficiency and accelerating the transition to renewables. While this is still key, this report shows that material efficiency can also deliver big emission reductions in the production, use and disposal of cars.

Specifically, material efficiency strategies could reduce emissions from the material cycle of passenger cars in 2050 by up to 70 per cent in G7 countries, and 50 to 60 per cent in China and India. The largest savings would come from a change in patterns of vehicle use such as ride-sharing and car-sharing, and a shift towards more intensive use and trip-appropriate smaller cars.

“Material efficiency strategies will play an essential role, for example, by providing low-carbon mobility services. Zero-emission transport systems are part of the solution, but it’s critical to also consider the resources and materials used to produce those systems. The good news is that material efficiency strategies for cars are based on proven technologies available today.”

Recycling, and use over a longer period of time, are key: “In the G7, improvements in manufacturing yields, fabrication scrap use, and end-of-life recovery, can lead to savings of 37 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from the material cycle of cars in 2050. Savings in China amount to 34 per cent and in India to 26 per cent. Lifetime extension of vehicles and increased reuse of parts in the G7 can lead to additional savings of 5 to 13 per cent in the G7, 14 per cent in China and 9 per cent in India,” says the report.

Emissions from production of materials growing fast

Emissions from the production of materials as a share of global greenhouse gases increased from 15 per cent in 1995 to 23 per cent in 2015, the report says. “This corresponds to the share of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry, and land use change combined, yet they have received much less attention,” it notes.

Material efficiency strategies could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the material cycle of passenger cars in 2050 by 57–70 per cent in G7 countries, 29–62 per cent in China, and 39–53 per cent in India, says the report.

And such strategies for the manufacturing, operations, and end-of-life management of cars in the G7 could yield total greenhouse gas emission reductions of 30–40 per cent in 2050, says the report. Savings in China and India would be 20–35 per cent.

The report also points out that nationally determined contributions currently include limited commitments to material efficiency. They appear as explicit mitigation measures only in the nationally determined contributions of China, India, Japan and Turkey. Material efficiency can be advanced not only by broadening the scope of targets in these contributions but also by increasing the mitigation ambition, the report says.

The world must immediately begin delivering faster greenhouse gas emission cuts to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C, says the November 2019 edition of the UNEP Emissions Gap Report.

To tackle global heating, we will need to use the full range of emission reduction options. And we need progress in all sectors: energy, industry, agriculture, forestry, transportation and buildings to meet this target.

Source: UNEP