sustainability in the automotive industry

Has the car industry overslept the sustainability turnaround? Christoph Herrmann, Professor of Sustainable Production and Life Cycle Engineering at the TU Braunschweig, explains how the industry remains competitive.

What does "sustainable management" mean?

In the last three decades, the term "sustainable development", combined with the three dimensions economy, environment and society, has dominated the understanding of the actors. Especially in the last few years, it has become clear that, despite resource and energy-efficient products, this understanding is no longer sufficient in times of a still dynamically growing world population and rising living standards in industrialized and emerging countries. We understand that we need to distinguish between sustainability and sustainable development. The latter implies the relative improvement of products. For example, a manufacturer develops a car that consumes two percent less fuel. But if this manufacturer also sells significantly more cars as a result, the impact on climate change will continue to increase. Sustainability, on the other hand, is absolute. Accordingly, decision-makers see that the dimensions are not side by side, but that the economy is embedded in society, which in turn is embedded in an intact environment.

What does this approach mean in concrete terms?

Heating and cooling buildings, transport and the production of goods are the three major sectors that contribute to climate change. The transport sector currently stands out because it is most dependent on fossil fuels. As is well known, they are not only finite, but their combustion releases a particularly large number of greenhouse gases. The technology of internal combustion engines is now so mature that an increase in efficiency is hardly possible. Then a new technique must follow. The automotive sector is in this situation right now. With a combustion engine, fuel consumption accounts for around 80 percent of climate-relevant emissions. With e-cars and the simultaneous expansion of renewable energies, this value drops to almost zero in the usage phase.

But at the same time the CO2 footprint increases in the production phase - is that sustainable?

Not automatically. Manufacturing batteries is energy intensive. For the automotive industry, this means that the development capacities now have to be put into battery development and production. The issue of recycling is also becoming increasingly important. Not only because the battery materials increase the value of the product, but also because the materials and all the electronics can no longer be returned to cycles in such a trivial way. These are extremely challenging times for manufacturers - not only in terms of the pressure to innovate, but also in terms of communication with customers and society as a whole.In the different countries of this world we have big differences in the electricity mix. In Australia, it is currently still predominantly coal-fired, in France nuclear power, in Norway energy from hydroelectric power plants. So, as a manufacturer, I'm selling a car and depending on where I charge it, it has a different footprint. Explain that to your customers.

Many companies want to be climate neutral well before 2050. Why this rush all of a sudden?

A rethink is taking place. Environmental sustainability is becoming a new normal. Otherwise, the auto industry runs the risk of losing legitimacy in society. A generation is growing up that has a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of sustainability. This generation are the customers of tomorrow. And these customers are making new demands on the products and the manufacturing companies. If you want to remain successful, you have to be at the forefront of this movement.

Are you worried that the German automotive industry in particular will be late?

If I tackle a topic too late, I lose innovative strength. Companies that do not credibly address the issue of sustainability will also find it difficult to get the best employees. In other countries one does not sleep. Nevertheless, the German manufacturers have understood the seriousness of the situation and sustainability is becoming an integral part of all innovations.


Leave a reply

Name *