Building on its seminal vehicle life cycle assessment study for the European Commission, Ricardo is now working with consortium partners on the definitive European standard for life cycle assessment for zero emission vehicles and batteries.
Here, Nikolas Hill, Head of Vehicle Technologies and Fuels in Ricardo’s Sustainable Transport team, who is our lead for the project within the consortium, explains why policy makers and the automotive industry need this harmonised standard, and what impact it will make for the global transport and energy markets.
There is no single life cycle assessment (LCA) standard for zero emission vehicles (ZEV) and batteries currently. What problems does this create for vehicle and battery manufacturers?
Nikolas Hill: "The life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology has been around and widely adopted for decades. It’s a great framework, but there is a lot of flexibility in it and a lot of options, which are not necessarily right or wrong, and which also depend on one’s objective for conducting an LCA: what you’re trying to investigate and assess."
"There are a lot of choices that can be made in terms of data methods, the level of detail that one goes into, or the assumptions which are required to characterise, for example, the lifetime operation of vehicle or aspects to do with end-of-life or product recycling. Each of these assumptions all can have quite a big influence on the overall outcome, particularly if you're making comparisons between vehicles using different powertrains and different fuel types as well. All in all, within the different phases and different areas of a product life cycle, the assumptions made can have a big swing effect on the outcome."
"In essence, different LCAs can come up with different results and that can generate divergence and confusion when people try to compare them. They're not always comparable because if different levels of data and different assumptions have been used then that makes it hard actually to make an objective comparison. To compound this, some of the key assumptions and data can be either poorly informed or out-of-date in some LCA studies. This is particularly common for new electric powertrain/battery technologies where developments are rapid (and also impacts are greater for production and smaller for the use-phase), which can lead to a systematic bias when comparing between established and new powertrain options. That causes an issue for consumers, but also for manufacturers who are trying to assess and optimise different options, and inform their strategy and environmental, social, governance (ESG) commitments: it makes it harder to make objective comparisons that enable trusted decision-making and reporting."
"The result of all of this is that there is a lack of consistency or fairness overall, but perhaps even more significantly, this hinders the pathway to enable the development of optimised solutions which can be applied to zero emission vehicles and batteries to ultimately contribute to meeting net zero objectives."
"The challenge that we are seeking to solve is not only the lack of a harmonised standard, but also coming up with ways to work out what the needs (for the ‘ideal’ LCA) and the gaps associated with these. Thus, our goal in creating a harmonised LCA approach is to ensure that we are creating a fair and consistent benchmark; helping to improve results; delivering a pathway; creating trusted guidance on where resources can be applied for best effect; and agreeing on a focus. The desired outcome is that manufacturers can improve their supply chain emissions, influence change in the supply chain, and design new products the environmental impacts of which can be easily, fairly and clearly understood by consumers."
What’s the challenge in adapting the existing LCA approach for ZEVs?
Nikolas Hill: "For manufacturers of zero emission vehicles, there are a whole set of new, specific challenges, not least the rapidly changing energy situation. For conventional fuel vehicles, while there has been the introduction of relatively small volumes of low carbon biofuels, by and large fuels have not changed significantly. By comparison, treatment of zero emission vehicles in LCA are facing unprecedented challenges in relation to the change in electricity mix over the life of the vehicle, how you might account for a second life for the battery or what's being considered in the future for possible grid services from electric vehicles and how you treat those."
Is the zero emission vehicle LCA standard designed for policymakers or manufacturers?
Nikolas Hill: "Both policymakers and manufacturers – but ultimately also for those purchasing vehicles! Our initiative is a Coordination and Support Action supported under the Horizon Europe Framework Programme and has also received funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). So both the European Commission and the UK Government will want to have actionable insight and guidance which could also be applicable in a legislative or policy context as they seek to deliver national net zero strategies to tackle climate change."
"From the perspective of the global automotive industry, manufacturers and suppliers need the consistent, harmonised LCA standard that they can apply consistently themselves to improve their product design and product reporting. Thus, the industry and regulators are the key stakeholders for the harmonised LCA standard."
"There will, of course, be other beneficiaries of the standard. Consumers will have a trusted, objective means of consistently comparing products and new vehicles, while the scientific community will also feel a benefit from certain applications – perhaps through either methodological development or to enhance understanding in a particular area."
What will be the biggest impact of the harmonised LCA standard?
Nikolas Hill: "Our hope and expectation is that LCA will be applied more consistently, and with a more robust approach that takes away uncertainty and provides the focusing of resources more efficiently to enable manufacturers and suppliers to improve and reduce the environmental impacts across the full life cycle of vehicles. The outputs of LCAs will help remove uncertainty and engender trust, giving consumers greater confidence in their results."
The automotive industry is global. Is there a similar international project to harmonise LCA standards?
Nikolas Hill: "In parallel to this European initiative to produce a single, harmonised LCA standard, there is also a UNECE working group looking at an international harmonised standard. Ricardo is part of that working group, as are other partners from our European consortium, and we all feel that it’s important to have that interaction if we are to have genuine global harmonisation on vehicle LCA."
"It’s important that there is as much consistency as possible across different regions and applications, which is why consistent and comparable assessment standards are required. Crucially, no one wants to be creating unnecessary work or cost for global vehicle manufacturers and suppliers in applying the LCA. For example, if there were to be say six different standards, it creates confusion, a lot more work and, of course, avoidable cost – all of which takes resources away from the actions which could have resulted in the beneficial impacts of having undertaken the LCA."
"Being involved in both the international working group and the EU initiative will help to bring together discussions and evidence, so both will benefit, and we can help to ensure that a genuinely global harmonised approach is being developed."
Why was Ricardo trusted by the European Commission to play a leading role in this LCA harmonisation initiative?
Nikolas Hill: "Ricardo is co-leading a work package in this initiative and we are one of the core partners in the TranSensus LCA consortium which comprises 44 organisations, including 20 beneficiaries."
"One of the main reasons why we were appointed to this initiative was on the strength our work for the European Commission, DG Climate Action, and our final report for this in 2020: Determining the environmental impacts of conventionally and alternatively fuelled vehicles through LCA which was the broadest and most comprehensive study of its kind to date. The report assessed the life cycle impacts of 65 different European light- and heavy-duty vehicle types and powertrain combinations. It considered the production of 60 fuel chains for conventional and alternative fuels as well as 14 different forms of electricity generation, the impacts of vehicle (and battery) manufacturing, and vehicle use and maintenance including different ‘end of life’ scenarios. The report also highlighted the positive impact of existing European Union policy in directly supporting the move to a more circular economy and the initiatives aimed at developing a sustainable value chain for hybrid and fully electric vehicles and their batteries in driving down industrial emissions and improving resource efficiency."
"Since that seminal report, we have undertaken a huge amount of policy and strategy consultancy for our clients who include original equipment manufacturers and tier one suppliers, as well as policy makers and the European Commission and UK Government – all of which will help to inform the research and methodological development we will be applying to this project.”
"In addition to policy and strategy and the needs and requirements of our clients in these fields, we have a very sound technical understanding of the products themselves, the technologies, and what influences them and of the methodology of the LCA. As a consultancy, we uniquely have the broad and deep expertise and experience right across the value chain from policy to strategy to technology implementation."
When will we see the first outputs from the consortium?
Nikolas Hill: "This is a 30 month project, that is scheduled to finish in June 2025. The first part of the work will involve research, state-of-the-art analysis, and information-gathering information through state consultation, interviews and then there's a methodological development. So, we expect to have a first draft methodology in by around the middle of 2024."
"The second phase is refining and agreeing that proposal: the harmonisation approach with industry organisations, scientific bodies, the European Union and other stakeholders and also through wider stakeholder engagement. This will then ultimately lead to the final standard: a guidance document outlining the key methodology, pathway and tools. There is a similar timetable for the international standard. There will be a lot of dissemination activities once the guidance is ready, to ensure that the harmonised standard is promoted and adopted by policymakers, manufacturers and suppliers."
Ricardo is on the core team of the collaborative TranSensus LCA consortium – jointly coordinated by the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability LBF and the Fraunhofer-Institution of Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST– which comprises 44 stakeholders from industry and research along the full value chain of zero emission vehicles and batteries including: research institutions, vehicle and battery manufacturers, the supply industry, energy providers and recyclers.
TranSensus LCA is funded by the European Union under the Grant Agreement #101056715. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or CINEA. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.
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