European automobile manufacturers have significantly reduced the environmental impact of vehicle production over the last decade, as new figures show. Even though car production has been on the rise again since 2013, the industry has succeeded in decoupling CO2 emissions, energy consumption, water usage and waste generation from production growth.
At the beginning of June, ACEA published its annual Pocket Guide with the latest figures on automotive employment and trade, innovation, as well as data on the production, registration, use and taxation of vehicles. But besides these ‘hard’ economic statistics, the latest data also show significant progress in improving our sector’s environmental performance. Of course, our industry primarily seeks to address tomorrow’s challenges by investing in low-emitting vehicles and innovative mobility concepts. But this commitment is also reflected in manufacturers’ ongoing efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of vehicle production.
Obviously, this progress will be measured by many in monetary terms as it does indeed deliver significant savings. But in the process, we are also making a significant contribution to protecting our planet. In order to measure the societal impact of our efforts, it’s interesting to check our track record against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations. In order to tackle urgent challenges facing our world, the UN set 17 universal goals for the year 2030 back in 2012.
When looking at our latest Pocket Guide data from an SDG point of view, it becomes clear that the European auto industry is making a significant contribution to SDG 13, which presses everyone to take urgent action to combat climate change. Between 2007 and 2016 the overall CO2 emissions from car production went down by 24.5%. Some might be quick to attribute these reductions to falling demand for cars following the 2007 economic crisis, but data from recent years have proven the opposite.
Despite the fact that car production has been on the rise again since 2013, manufacturers have been able to decouple CO2 emissions from production growth. They have done this by increasingly sourcing energy from renewable and low-carbon sources. Indeed, total CO2 emissions have remained stable despite a substantial increase in production volume. Simply put, that means that nearly 2.2 million cars more were produced in 2016 than in 2013, while the total amount of CO2 emissions remained nearly identical. Looking at it per car produced, CO2 emissions dropped by an impressive 25.8% between 2007 and 2016.
Similar positive trends have been identified for water consumption. Long-term water management strategies have made it possible for a car rolling off the production line in 2016 to use 31.9% less water to be made than one from 2007. To a large extent, this is the result of the increased application of recirculation technologies for the reuse of water, in line with SDG 6 that urges all sectors to substantially increase water-use efficiency in order to ensure availability of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
As cars have become equipped with ever more features to make them safer, cleaner and smarter, the complexity of vehicle production has increased accordingly. This evidently also affects demand for energy during production. Nevertheless, manufacturers have been working continuously to improve the energy efficiency of their production processes, in line with SDG 7. As a result, the energy consumption per car produced has been decreased by 12.1% over the last decade.
A slightly more complex, but very important, part of reducing our environmental footprint has to do with so-called VOC emissions. Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are organic solvents, and in our sector they are mainly emitted from vehicle paint shops. Even though the VOC contribution of these paint shops amounts to less than 0.5% of total emissions, we have been working hard to reduce the use of such chemicals to ensure healthy lives – as SDG 3 specifies. With new technologies, such as replacing solvent-based paints with solvent-free, water-based equivalents, manufacturers have been able to reduce VOC emissions by 30.7% per vehicle produced since 2007.
Finally, in line with SDG 12, car manufacturers have made the circular economy an integral part of their production strategies, for example by substantially reducing waste generation. The waste generated per car produced went down by 24.1% over the last 10 years. Waste fluctuations can often be explained by events such as a fall in total production following the economic crisis. But also after 2013, when car production picked up again, the amount of waste has been further reduced at a steady and continuous rate.
However, the automobile industry does not only contribute to the circular economy by reducing waste from vehicle production, but also by prolonging the service life of vehicles. Extending the lifetime of a vehicle – for example by ensuring that it can be repaired and maintained – is essential to conserving natural resources and energy, as well as reducing costs for consumers of course.
Because of our industry’s commitment to this ‘design for sustainability’ concept, vehicles are built to be as sustainable as possible over their entire lifecycle. From prolonging the in-use phase of cars and commercial vehicles, to recyclability at the end of their life, the industry focusses its efforts on reducing the overall environmental impact in those areas that matter most.
The automotive industry has made the circular economy an integral part of its DNA. This level of ambition does not only apply to reducing our environmental footprint, but equally to our objective of making mobility cleaner, smarter and safer in the future. To that end, the automotive sector invests €50.1 billion in innovation each year. This not only makes us the EU’s largest investor in R&D, but it also marks our highest annual investment in innovation on record.
Secretary General of ACEA