Sustainable Mobility: A Life Cycle Analysis Approach

Sustainable Mobility: A Life Cycle Analysis Approach

Jan 4, 2021
Posted by Mike Sutton, Senior Technical Fellow

This article highlights the key takeaways from our recent Sustainable Mobility: A Life Cycle Analysis Approach webinar, part of our Lubrizol360 Webinar Series featuring Lubrizol experts discussing important industry trends.  

When it comes to creating frameworks for sustainable mobility, it is easy to focus solely on the tailpipe emissions and the amount of carbon dioxide produced. That approach, however, does not reflect the other environmental effects that mobility solutions have.

To create a truly sustainable mobility platform, it is important to take a “cradle-to-grave” approach and consider factors that encompass the entire lifespan of a passenger vehicle. And it does not matter whether it is electric vehicles (EVs) or internal combustion engines (ICE)—sustainability is far more complicated than is generally understood. In this webinar, we examined the critical considerations that give a more complete picture of a vehicle’s overall sustainability.

Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) Approach

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a complex discipline with many stages to be considered. In the case of passenger vehicles, there are three distinct phases that need to be examined in the LCA to determine whether a vehicle is truly sustainable, including:

  • Vehicle production
  • In-use time
  • End-of-life disposition

Vehicle Production

At the production phase, the amount of recycled materials used has a direct effect on the sustainability of the finished product. Use of recycled components has a positive impact on the overall energy consumption and loading of landfills.

Mining activities for vehicle production components also have a variety of environmental effects because the metals (e.g., cobalt) that are used in battery production and electric motors for EVs present a variety of potential issues, such as radioactive and toxic pollution, as well as strains on water resources. In addition, large supplies of key metals are sourced from politically unstable regions, which raise social and ethical concerns as well.

Finally, the process of obtaining petroleum products is something that needs to be taken into consideration. At the production phase, the amount of petroleum-based vehicle components—plastic, rubber and fuel, for example—raise concerns about the different methods of petroleum extraction that have significant environmental effects, which play a role in the long-term sustainability of the vehicle.

In-use Time

Direct emissions from in-use vehicles are a clear sustainability factor. Combustion engines will contribute CO2 to the atmosphere, based on the total amount of carbon-based fuel burned. Continuous improvements in vehicle fuel-economy performance throughout the world have the potential for substantial reductions in overall impact.

But it is also important to consider how the infrastructure necessary to keep vehicles in working order will affect the environment. Whether it’s ICE or EV vehicles, there is a need to build refineries, fuel stations, power plants and charging stations. Each of these infrastructure investments contributes to the sustainability—or not—of vehicles over their lifetimes.

While it is common to assume EVs are more sustainable in the long term, it’s important to consider where the battery-charging electricity is sourced. For example, a charging station powered by a coal-burning power plant is not as sustainable as one that is powered by renewable energy sources. Different regions are equipped with varying current potential sources of electricity options, but more renewable, carbon-free sources offer greater positive benefit to EV sustainability.

End-of-Life Disposition

Useful life expectancy has a large environmental impact contribution to a vehicle’s total life cycle. More durable vehicle design offers benefits over one with a shorter life span, and good maintenance practices can maximize vehicle life. The more durable the vehicle, the more sustainable it is in the long term. At the end of life, the potential to recycle as much of the vehicle’s content as possible offers similar positive outcomes.

For more information about sustainable mobility, view the whole webinar here, or contact your Lubrizol representative.

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