Nature and Biodiversity

Here's why electrification is about much more than battery electric vehicles

Aerial view of red car driving next to forests and body of water: Multiple powertrain technologies including hybrids will serve a cleaner tomorrow via electrification.

Multiple powertrain technologies, including hybrids, will create a cleaner tomorrow via electrification. Image: Garret Motion

Olivier Rabiller
President and Chief Executive Officer, Garrett Motion
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Climate and Nature

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) generate significant CO2; offsetting these will take too long for compact BEVs driving short distances in Europe.
  • Hybrid and plug-in hybrids generate fewer emissions; thus, a mix of electrified powertrains – hybrid, plug-in hybrid and BEV – would better serve a cleaner future in Europe.
  • The high cost of batteries also prevents wider BEV adoption, while access to electrified transport options must be more equitable.

The electrification of transportation is essential to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in developed and emerging markets. However, the drive behind sustainable mobility is often anchored on the misguided assumption that 100% battery electric vehicles (BEVs) with zero tailpipe emissions are universally beneficial for the environment.

The reality is that BEVs generate a significant volume of CO2 over their lifetime, mainly during battery production. The larger the battery capacity, the higher the CO2 emissions. By comparison, hybrid and plug-in hybrids have lower battery capacities and thus generate fewer emissions up-front during production.

At Garrett Motion, we analyzed the years of use required to compensate for the difference in emissions among BEVs and other electrified hybrids – specifically in Euro, given the European Union’s decision to decarbonize transport by limiting the sale of new vehicles to mainly BEVs by 2035.

Real-world details matter, so we accounted for factors such as vehicle segment or class, weight, size of the battery, average annual mileages, the carbon intensity of power grids and charging or refuelling options. Garrett’s vehicle lifecycle assessment study concluded that for key consumer segments, choosing an electrified hybrid would generate fewer CO2 emissions than BEVs over their lifetime, depending on the annual mileage driven.

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Coming up short

In Europe, 60% of cars are driven less than 11,300 kilometres yearly.

Compared with plug-in hybrids, popular compact BEVs in Europe can take at least 12 years to compensate for emissions generated during production. For the same compact car driven over 20,000 kilometres per year, it would take five years to offset emissions – compared to a plug-in hybrid. In this case, a BEV represents the apparent choice to minimize CO2 emissions. However, only 10% of cars have driven this mileage (or more) per year.

To reduce total emissions over a vehicle’s lifecycle, we should right-size the battery technology required to meet everyday driving needs. The selection criteria should consider whether the occasional long trip merits larger battery capacity versus preserving the flexibility of an entire hybrid powertrain.

Therefore, a smart approach during the industry’s transition would be to encourage the most efficient mix of electrified technologies to avoid oversized battery capacity versus real-world requirements and to reduce overall CO2 emissions fast and at scale.

For most EU countries, optimizing a portfolio of complementary electrified powertrains (e.g. mild, full and plug-in hybrids, BEVs) would strike a better balance between intended uses and the total CO2 emissions generated. A great opportunity is missed when a single technology is mandated instead of refining the technology mix for greater, broader and faster environmental benefits.

Accessible electrification

Another hurdle towards impactful electrification in Europe is the cost of BEVs, preventing wider adoption and equitable access. Batteries are the most expensive component of a BEV, subject to the rising and volatile prices of raw materials. The increase in demand for electric vehicles further intensifies cost pressures, making economies of scale – and the potential for price reductions – currently difficult to realize.

According to JATO Dynamics research consultancy, the average price of a BEV in Europe during the first half of 2022 was €56,000, compared to €32,000 in China, which is considered a benchmark country in terms of speed of adoption.

As 2035 approaches, the pressure to realize CO2 reduction milestones is gaining ground. However, consumers need to be able to make informed choices. Narrow regulations that are hyper-focused on one technology and tailpipe emissions – plus cost barriers – should not hinder consumers’ choice of electrified transport.

Reducing tailpipe CO2 emissions via electrification will get us there but the technological mix required is more nuanced than what is openly discussed. Protecting technology neutrality is a strategic decision that leaves room for the next generation to innovate beyond what we think is possible today.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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