Established in 1927, Volvo is one of the oldest and most reputable car brands in the automobile industry. I decided to review this brand because I was curious about how a 95-year-old brand is evolving and working to create more sustainable vehicles. I have never seen an electric vehicle before, as the importation of EVs in Nigeria is not exactly feasible. However, these cars are supposedly the future of the industry and I wanted to know how sustainable they actually are.
The conundrum here is that while EVs have proven to be better for the environment in the long haul, we cannot deny the fact that the production is riddled with immense CO2 emissions and a lack of transparency in supply chains. So how sustainable is a product if the environmental cost of its production is even more than that of the fossil fuel counterpart? Are we then to allow these damages knowing that they will be offset through its life cycle? Or do we challenge these companies to do better and find more innovative ways to solve this problem?
Volvo Cars dwells on the subject of a circular economy. They claim to maximise resource efficiency across vehicles, components and materials by focusing on eliminating waste, making greater use of recycled material, and remanufacturing and reusing parts. I commend the commitment to product circularity and hope to see more initiative from Volvo Cars.
Generally, all automobiles comprise of hundreds of components and materials. However, there are a few notable materials that can be assessed. The Volvo C40 Recharge is an electric crossover that speaks luxury without leather. I found it really admirable that the interior of the car is 100% leather-free, and supposedly vegan-friendly, meaning it’s replaced with a synthetic dupe, most likely a polymer.
The body structure is made chiefly of Boron Steel, which refers to steel alloyed with a small amount of boron, usually less than 1%. The addition of boron to steel greatly increases the hardenability of the resulting alloy. Now steel, once made, can be used forever -its lifecycle is potentially endless. Steel plays an essential role in transitioning to a low-carbon, circular economy which is one of the most highlighted aspects of Volvo Cars' sustainability.
Aluminium is another essential material in the car, consisting of two types - cast and wrought aluminium. Produced primarily from Bauxite Ore, aluminium is a very environmentally friendly metal that when recycled, saves 95% of the energy required for its manufacture.
For the other materials like plastics, while there isn’t clear information about how they’re sourced and produced, Volvo Cars is transparent about their awareness of the possible emissions from raw material production.
For an electric car, my primary cause for concern is the production of batteries. The major highlight of any electric vehicle is the idea that you do not need petroleum for daily use, thereby drastically reducing your carbon footprint. While lithium-ion batteries are being heralded as the more sustainable option because of their near zero emissions, there is still a major cause for concern about the mining and extraction of their major components - cobalt and lithium, which are both extremely labour intensive. Cobalt is an important part of a battery’s electrode, but around 70% of this element is found in just one country: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While lithium-ion batteries can be used as a part of a sustainable solution, shifting all fossil fuel-powered devices to lithium-based batteries might not be the Earth's best option. There is no scarcity yet, but it is a natural resource that can be depleted. These metals are considered non-hazardous but unfortunately, not sustainable due to their extraction/mining processes that pose an environmental threat.
Electric cars are the future of the automotive industry. When manufacturing and production processes are compared for the C40 Recharge and its Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) counterpart, it is found that the production of the C40 Recharge emits more CO2 -almost 70% more, including the production of lithium-ion batteries- than the XC40 ICE. Hence, the theory behind electric vehicles (EVs) is that once they reach a degree of use where electricity is all they require to function, their environmental impact levels off. While ICE cars continue to emit throughout their lifetime due to the burning of fossil fuels.
Aluminium and Li-ion battery pack production account for the largest portion of C40 Recharge's GHG emissions, contributing 30% and 28% respectively, while steel, iron, and polymer components make up 19%, 9%, and 7% of the total emissions. While these materials are inherently environmentally friendly, their production is clearly not.
As stated in the previous section, I was really curious about the materials the batteries are produced from and how they are sourced.
Volvo has a running agreement with CATL and LG-Chem for the supply of their BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) batteries. These batteries are primarily made with cobalt. The mining of cobalt has been associated with child labour, irresponsible sourcing, pollution and the destruction of biodiversity over the years, so I went deeper to see how these companies are mitigating this concern. The LG-Chem has a detailed audit report on the programs and systems set in place to monitor and regulate the workers that mine the fields in the Congo. However, the system put in place is not robust enough to effectively mitigate this risk.
Lithium is sourced from a lithium mine in Yichun in Jiangxi province and the extraction process of lithium is very resource demanding and specifically uses a lot of water in the extraction process. It is estimated that 500,000 gallons of water are used to mine one metric ton of lithium. Consequently, the company promises to reduce water consumption and recycle wastewater. This product falls short of earning higher marks in this section due to widespread doubt about the genuine treatment of workers and emissions from mining and transportation.
Finally, I want to know how Volvo Cars intends to ensure that its not contributing to the overall depletion of the lithium resource, as environmentally friendly as the metal is, it can get depleted over time and cause grievous environmental impact. I’m curious to find out what plans Volvo Cars has for this growing concern.
Volvo Cars is working towards becoming a climate-neutral company by 2040. As a part of this vision, the corporate aims to cut back its lifecycle carbon footprint per car by 40% between 2018 and 2025. From 2025, Volvo Cars aims to scale back its annual carbon emissions by 2.5 million tonnes and make sure that 25% of the fabric within its new cars is recycled and bio-based.
I appreciate the company for being as candid as they are, acknowledging that they are a major part of the problem and working towards reducing emissions across their entire value chain. In light of this, all European plants have been running on hydroelectric power. Today, the global plants are powered by over 80 per cent climate-neutral electricity.
Many companies design their products for a linear economy. An economy based on 'take-make-dispose'. This encourages a pattern of overconsumption and for a sustainable future, circularity must be the order of the day. Companies must design to ensure that maximum value is obtained from the product’s use and at the end of life, recycling and upcycling can take place seamlessly. Volvo Cars claims to design for this circularity, by ensuring that at the end of the product’s life cycle, the disassembly and recycling process can provide high quality and quantity of raw materials.
Additionally, it was nice to see that the company cares for its employees and their families. The Family Bond by Volvo Cars is an all-gender global paid parental leave program; under this, employees of Volvo Cars are automatically granted 24 weeks of parental vacation after completing at least one year of service at a rate of 80% of their base pay.
The company’s cobalt supply chain is more transparent and traceable using blockchain technology, which also ensures that the origin of the material's information cannot be modified covertly. In order to make sure that the cobalt used in the batteries is obtained ethically, additional procedures are employed in collaboration with our suppliers, such as mine site inspections and GPS tracking. There is no tangible way of verifying this claim and I am interested in this initiative on a general note.
The financial sector can significantly speed up the shift to a low-carbon economy. Volvo Cars has an ever-increasing emphasis on sustainable investing. With the help of its green financing framework, the company is able to match financing opportunities with its sustainability plan to make positive impacts on the environment and society. The ICMA Green Bond Principles (GBP) and the LMA Green Loan Principles are both supported by the Framework (GLP).
Investments are made in Polestar, which is leading electrification, as well as research and development on zero-emissions vehicles, new electric powertrains, and platform technology.
Overall, I must say that Volvo Cars is a decent company, clearly with ambitious goals towards sustainability and I recommend this car to any interested buyer. More can be done to strengthen the efforts the company is making and to reduce the overall impact on the environment.