business sustainability transport

Can Polestar deliver a zero carbon car?

There are a number of examples of companies working to reduce the emissions from the cars that they produce. This summer Ford announced that their Michigan plant, the mother of all car factories, would be carbon neutral by 2025. Bentley claim to have Britain’s greenest car plant, but they make the least efficient petrol cars in the country and there’s a distinct tang of greenwash on that one.

Perhaps the most ambitious so far is BMW, which used the i3 as a pilot for sustainability. The electric car was made in a wind powered factory in Leipzig. It was carbon fibre to save on the embedded emissions from steel, it made extensive use of recycled materials, and 95% of the car could be recycled at the end of its usefulness.

However, Polestar intend to go further still. They’re aiming for a genuinely zero carbon car by 2030: “The Polestar 0 Project will eliminate, not reduce, all greenhouse gas emissions from every aspect of production. From conception all the way to customer delivery, our target will be met without resorting to offsetting until there are solutions with proven results in place. Zero will mean zero.”

If you’ve not come across Polestar, they’re an all-electric spin-off brand from Volvo. They’re based in Sweden with manufacturing in China (Volvo is owned by Chinese car multinational Geely these days). Their project is long term, because this is a more complicated and amibitious vision than ‘net zero’. If you’re allowing the ‘net’, you can fall back on offsetting and avoid the hardest aspects of decarbonisation. There are plenty of ways to make it easier by leaving out various elements of the supply chain, and just focusing on in-house emissions. Producing a car with zero emissions is much more difficult, and it is likely to take until 2030 to deliver – if it can be done at all.

The first stage of the Polestar 0 project is to identify partners. Car companies don’t mine and produce their own materials, so you need suppliers equally committed to zero carbon. In this case, Boliden will work on copper and metals. Norsk Hydro will provide zero carbon aluminium. A company called PaperShell are involved, who specialise in advanced wood-based composite materials.

Polestar describe their project as a ‘moonshot’, which was an overused word in British politics a couple of years ago, but may apply here. As described in Mariana Mazzucato’s book Mission Economy, the strength of the original Apollo project was the way that it galvanised industrial cooperation. For Mazzucato, moonshots are “bold societal goals which can be achieved by collaboration on a large scale between public and private entities.”

That’s certainly true here. Consider steel, for example – one of the biggest sources of embedded emissions in a car. Steel production needs a huge amount of heat, which has traditionally come from burning coke. It’s a hugely carbon intensive process. Polestar will be relying on another Swedish firm, SSAB, who started producing zero carbon steel last year. Having proved the concept, they expect to be producing it commercially at scale by 2026.

That’s a huge project in itself, one I’ve written about before. SSAB use renewable energy to produce hydrogen, which then fires the steel plant. But there are further emissions beyond manufacturing the steel, and SSAB are pursuing emissions cuts down the supply chain too, right down to the mining companies.

In a nice bit of circularity within Swedish industry, the first vehicle to be made with SSAB’s zero carbon steel is an electric mining truck produced by Volvo and used by ore mining firm LKAB. LKAB will use it in fossil-free mining, selling the ore back to SSAB, who will produce the steel for Volvo and Polestar.

The public sector is involved in all of this too. The government-owned Swedish Energy Agency funded the feasibility studies for zero carbon steel, and half the cost of the initial pilot. The EU has also been a big funder.

This is how moonshots are supposed to work – using an ambitious vision to drive change across a broad base of partners. Polestar’s project locks into the existing transition in Sweden’s steel sector, driving innovation and investment across a variety of sectors.

What will Polestar’s car look like at the end of the journey? No word on that yet, or whether or not the likes of you and I will be able to afford it. But in terms of pushing forward the possibilities of zero carbon manufacturing, it’s already breaking new ground and you can read more about it here.

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