8 Nov 22

25 years: the past and future of fleet sustainability

COP27 has begun and we’ve been vehemently warned of the impending doom if we do not make real, tangible efforts to eliminate GHG (Green House Gas) emissions and avoid the catastrophic effects of a +2°c rise in global warming.  

Meanwhile, we prepare for the Fleet Europe Summit in Dublin next week and our celebration of our own 25th anniversary, 25 years in which we ourselves have made sustainability a key focus. But it’s not just about being “green”, it’s about creating and enabling a future. One in which we, and the planet, can not only survive but thrive. 

Looking back, 25 years of sustainability in the automotive industry has come and gone in the blink of an eye. In fact, in the grand scheme of things (in comparison to how long the earth has sustained life), 25 years doesn’t even constitute a blink! In that time, however fleeting (pardon the pun), global warming has continued to rise and the automotive and transport industries have contributed to that – despite increased measures to cut emissions. 

So, what’s been going wrong? 

Have our efforts to create alternative powertrains been too slow? Has there been too much emphasis on electrification rather than developing fossil-free and clean fuels? Has our love of the car and the freedom it brings just been too compelling to give it up? Or is it all of the above? 

Based on authoritative research, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says we must limit global warming to 1.5°c. Human-induced warming reached 1°c in 2017 and 20–40% of the global human population live in regions that, by the decade 2006–2015, had already experienced warming of more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in at least one season (Source: IPCC). The world is experiencing unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, heavy rains and flooding like never before. Sea life is dying, 50% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has succumbed to bleaching, which if not addressed could mean it disappearing forever. 

More cars on the road than ever

In 1997, there were just over 14.7 million vehicles registered across Europe (that’s vehicles, not just passenger cars). By 2020, that figure had grown to 246.3 million passenger cars (not counting other road vehicles). That’s an increase of 1,575.5%, European citizens love their cars. While this is being celebrated from a commercial perspective, it’s also a very obvious element in the GHG emissions in transport problem. 

In 2021, when Greenpeace published its Auto Environmental Guide, it was calling for a complete phase out of the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) to be brought forward from 2035 to 2030 in leading markets (US, China, Korea and Japan) and 2028 in Europe. At the time, seven-out-of-ten of the big automobile groups (including Daimler, Ford, Nissan, Renault, Stellantis, Toyota and Volkswagen) did not have a complete ICE phase out date in any market. Since then, the European Union has officially banned the sale of new ICE vehicles by 2035 and car makers have updated their ambitions: 

The following image is courtesy of the ICCT

Of course, car manufacturers and the fleet and leasing industries are making huge efforts to decarbonise and this is not reflected in environmentalists’ research. ACEA (The European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association) published its Pocket Guide 2022/23 recently highlighting just a few of the strides that have been taken: 

  • The average new car in the EU emits 108g CO2/km, which is down 56.4% since 1997’s figure of just below 190g CO2/km.
  • 80% of all new cars sold in the EU emit less than 130g CO2/km.
  • CO2 emissions from new cars are down by 22.4% since 2010. 
  • Total energy consumption by car production has been cut by almost 25% in the last 15 years. 
  • CO2 emissions from car production have been slashed by 46% since 2006. 
  • The amount of water used in car manufacturing has halved over the past 15 years. 
  • Water waste generated by car manufacturing has been reduced by almost a third since 2006. 

What’s to come in terms of sustainability?

Looking forward for the next 25 years, what can we expect to see in terms of sustainability? 

Instead of selling more cars, let’s utilise them better

Car manufacturers will continue to capitalise on their global scale and market penetration and play their part to transform transportation to low carbon. The emphasis will change from selling more cars to better utilisation. But they cannot do it alone. They must learn to collaborate, often with each other but mostly with suppliers, technology companies, transport operators and mobility service providers – and that won’t be easy in an industry where the mindset is steeped in competition. 

Electrification continues

Electrification will continue but with a few caveats along the way. BEVs are only ‘green’ if the energy that powers them comes from renewable sources and if reusability and recyclability is built into them – and we are nowhere near those goals right now. 

Decarbonising steel manufacturing

Next, steel manufacture has to improve its carbon credentials. Steel currently makes up the largest part of a vehicle’s carbon footprint and since 1997, cars have got increasingly bigger with SUVs accounting for over 40% of the global market. This is unsustainable as most vehicle utilisation is single passenger only. 

More than anything, however, sustainability means approaching transport and commuting differently – and that means everyone, not just car manufacturers, leasing companies and fleet operators. Ultimately, the true zero-carbon mobility future should involve far fewer private cars, more efficient public transport systems, more car sharing options, the redesign of cities to make space for walking and cycling, and less travel.

Main image: Shutterstock

In article image credit: The ICCT (International Council on Clean Transport). 

Authored by: Alison Pittaway