Lifecycle emissions

The environmental impact of vehicles cover their entire lifecycle, from manufacture to disposal.

6 minute read

The Vehicle Emissions Star Rating (VESR) rates the tailpipe emissions produced by different car models. However, like most products, vehicles have a climate impact both before we start using them and after we stop.

To measure a product's environmental impact, sustainability specialists consider its entire lifecycle emissions. This includes the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing processes, distribution, maintenance and disposal. 

The lifecycle analysis can cover many kinds of environmental impacts including pollution, water use, acidification, changes in land use, and greenhouse gas emissions. When applied to greenhouse gases, these indirect impacts of a product or service are often called ‘scope 3’ emissions.

When considering a car, lifecycle emissions can be broken into 3 main parts:

Upstream emissions

The emissions impact of manufacturing a car is sometimes called ‘upstream emissions’, ‘embodied carbon’ or ‘embedded carbon’. Most cars produce upstream emissions in the following stages:

  1. Resource extraction, refining and processing. This includes materials such as steel, critical minerals for the battery, rubber and steel in the tyres and glass for the windows.
  2. Manufacturing components such as stamping and casting parts and panels. 
  3. Vehicle assembly and finishing includes fitting the components together to assemble the car.
  4. Shipping and transport emissions includes the importation and distribution of all parts and then the final transportation of a vehicle to dealerships.

Upstream emissions vary significantly across vehicle technologies. For example, they tend to be greater for electric vehicles (EVs) than for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, due to the additional mineral resources needed for battery technology. Larger cars are more resource intensive than smaller cars. 

Operational emissions

A vehicle’s operational life also involves emissions from producing and distributing the energy you use to refuel it. No energy source for Australian vehicles is currently emissions-free and the emissions from these energy sources differ between vehicle types.

  1. Internal combustible engine (ICE) vehicles 
    ICE vehicles are vehicles that use petrol or diesel. Those fuels produce emissions from the global oil industry. This includes oil extraction, refining, global transportation, storage, national and local distribution. Operational emissions are higher for ICE vehicles, given that internal combustion engines always emit tailpipe emissions.
  2. Electric vehicles (EVs) 
    EV emissions come from the electricity used to recharge the batteries. Read more on the status of Australia’s electricity sector emissions here. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs), which solely use battery power to operate are different from hybrid electric vehicles. This means they have the greatest potential for their energy source to be emissions free, as the electricity used to power them can be entirely sourced from renewables.
  3. Hydrogen-powered vehicles  
    Hydrogen-powered vehicles produce emissions from the production, pressurisation, distribution, and storage of hydrogen.

End-of-life emissions 

Even in their disposal phase, all cars still produce scope 3 emissions. How we dispose of components, how much is re-used, and how recycled materials are recovered, all impact a vehicle’s lifecycle emissions. In this phase, new technologies like batteries and fuel cells present new challenges, as industry adapts to new forms of waste and recycling requirements.

Comparing lifecycle emissions of different vehicle types

Calculating a car’s lifecycle emissions is complicated and typically requires the use of a calculation tool. While there is an international standard covering the process, it still allows significant flexibility for those doing the assessment. Results of different studies are not always comparable.

For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) assessed the lifecycle emissions of an average EV being around half the emissions of an ICE vehicle. The results of this assessment vary depending on the carbon intensity of the electricity grid used to charge the EV. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), another trusted source, found similar variability in a 2021 study, with results varying by region. 

Because of this variability, VESR covers only vehicle tailpipe emissions, which are measured in a standardised test and most directly linked to the driving experience. 

All reputable lifecycle assessments show that EVs have a lower carbon emissions footprint than ICE vehicles. Operational emissions are much smaller for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) as there are no tailpipe emissions and electric motors are more efficient. This means that a smaller amount of energy is required to propel them than their ICE equivalents. The amount of renewable energy used to charge the EV also makes a difference to their lifecycle emissions. 

Using mostly renewable energy can reduce a BEV's lifecycle emissions to less than a quarter of those of an ICE vehicle. As the share of renewable energy in the Australian grid is at a record high and only continues to increase, choosing a BEV as your next vehicle is the right choice to reduce emissions both now and over the life of the vehicle.


NSW Government and MOV3MENT


February 13, 2024

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