“Offsetting is a cop-out”: Polestar plans truly carbon-neutral car

By 2030, Polestar wants to build truly carbon-neutral cars.
Enlarge / By 2030, Polestar wants to build truly carbon-neutral cars.

The Swedish electric vehicle startup Polestar says it wants to build truly carbon-neutral vehicles within the next decade. Announced on Wednesday as part of the company’s first sustainability report, the ambitious goal will require new car-building methods because, in the words of Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, “offsetting is a cop-out.”

“By pushing ourselves to create a completely climate-neutral car, we are forced to reach beyond what is possible today. We will have to question everything, innovate, and look to exponential technologies as we design toward zero,” Ingenlath said.

Specifically, Polestar says the target will only involve the carbon emissions it can directly control, which means everything from emissions from its supply chain and from raw materials, to completed cars leaving its factory.

How much carbon are we talking over the lifetime of a car?

About two-thirds of a gasoline-powered vehicle’s total life-cycle carbon emissions come from burning gasoline. For something like a Volvo XC40 crossover, that’s about 58 tons of CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, assuming 200,000 km (124,274 miles) from factory to scrapyard. A smaller, more efficient car like Volkswagen’s latest Golf will produce less—VW claims around 37 tons of carbon for the Mk 8 Golf.

For EVs, the numbers are a little more complicated; a car that is charged with electricity generated from burning coal will have a much bigger carbon impact than a car powered by renewables. For example, Tesla said in its most recent sustainability report that using the clean energy of New York state to charge one of its cars would equate to 144 mpg (1.6 l/100 km); doing the same in Michigan, which has a mix of coal and gas, would be closer to 55 mpg (4.2 l/100 km). (Based on a life cycle of 124,274 miles, a Tesla Model 3 charged from the grid could have total carbon emissions of just 22 tons, according to the automaker’s data.)

Using a worldwide average of how electricity is generated gives a Polestar 2 a lifetime carbon footprint of 50 tons. (The Polestar 2 and Volvo XC40 share a common architecture.) Swap in the numbers for Europe’s electricity mix and that drops to 42 tons, and just 27 tons of that electricity comes just from wind power.

And an EV requires more raw materials and more energy during production. For example, VW says that although the electric ID.3‘s life-cycle carbon is much lower than the Golf at 27 tons, 13 tons are from the production phase, nearly double that of the Golf.

Polestar’s job over the next few years is to work out how to reduce its production carbon footprint significantly. Right now, it says that aluminum, steel, and batteries account for 18 tons of a Polestar 2’s carbon emissions. Factor in polymers and electronics and it’s just over 22 tons of carbon. Some of that will decrease as China’s electricity supply decarbonizes, since much of its supply chain is coal-powered.

But that’s about as specific as the “Polestar 0” project gets right now—check back in nine years to see if the company hit its target.