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Top 5: Is Electrification the Answer to Diesel Emissions in the EU?

09.27.18 | Blog | By:

Hello friends! Here’s my monthly take on the five most interesting developments in future fuels and vehicles trends. Items I selected include:

  • A MIT study finds that emissions from most diesel cars in the EU generate up to 16 times more emissions on the road than in regulatory tests.
  • The race driver and investor Alex Ford argues for universal basic mobility, but what does that really mean?
  • A Stanford study has provided the first detailed analysis of oil production emissions, identifying the main culprits (flaring, for example) as well as first steps towards reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
  • The human toll of cobalt mining continues, despite the auto and other industries’ best efforts.
  • To meet its GHG reduction goal, the U.S. city of Minneapolis wants to cut driving trips by at least 37% by 2040. It won’t be the last city to pursue such a goal.

1. Science Daily: Emissions from Most Diesel Cars in Europe Greatly Exceed Laboratory Testing Levels — A new study from MIT has found that in Europe, 10 major auto manufacturers produced diesel cars, sold between 2000 and 2015, that generate up to 16 times more emissions on the road than in regulatory tests, similar to what studies from ICCT and Transport & Environment, among others, have shown. The researchers predict these excess emissions will have a significant health impact, causing approximately 2,700 premature deaths per year across Europe.

These excess emissions may not be a result of unlawful violations, as was the case with Volkswagen, the article notes. Instead, the team writes that “permissive testing procedures at the EU level and defective emissions control strategies” may be to blame. I expect the WLTP test procedure, which is now being implemented will begin to close that loop though that is not noted here. However, the article does note that if all 10 auto manufacturers were to improve their emissions control technologies to perform at the same level as the best manufacturer in the group, this would prevent up to 1,900 premature deaths per year. Nevertheless, one of the researchers says this toward the end of the article:

“The solution is to eliminate NOx altogether. We know there are human health impacts right down to pre-industrial levels, so there’s no safe level. At this point in time, it’s not that we have to go back to [gasoline]. It’s more that electrification is the answer, and ultimately we do have to have zero emissions in cities.”

This sentiment echoes another study released this month by Greenpeace, calling for an end to new gasoline and diesel passenger car sales by 2030 as necessary to meet the EU’s climate targets. This includes plug-in hybrids as well. The last vehicle with an internal combustion engine would be sold in 2028 and diesel and gasoline powered-cars would be banished from the roads by the mid-2040s. Behavioral change towards walking, cycling and public transport would also be necessary, according to one of the scientists involved in the study told The Guardian.

Where are vehicle sales currently in the EU? The chart below, from the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), shows the split for the year 2017. Diesel vehicle sales declined from 49.9% to 44.8% from 2016-2017. There was some growth for hybrid electric and other electrically charged vehicles during that same timeframe, but the percentage of sales remains low.

2. 2025 AD: Forget Universal Basic Income. We Need Universal Basic Mobility. — The race driver and investor Alex Ford argues in this piece that no one transport solution is global, “nor will any single mix of solutions work everywhere. All mobility is local, and history suggests only the free market — within the constraints of local culture and infrastructure — will allow mobility to reach its modal equilibrium. Yet, as private companies seek to resolve the failures of overstressed and underfunded public transportation systems, we run the risk of improving mobility for some while tacitly reducing freedom of movement and increasing inequality for others.” His solution is universal basic mobility (UBM), modeled after the concept of universal basic income (UBI).

Ford argues there is a “mobility underclass” that is only growing, creating structural immobility that seeks to limits some people’s access to jobs, services and the opportunity to make their lives better. UBI can’t necessarily solve that, but he argues UBM can. What’s the solution then? He doesn’t say because it depends on the local situation.  But his point is that policymakers and other stakeholders need to start having the discussion. The concept may seem nebulous now, but it will be interesting to see how and if UBM will translate into the policy space.

3. Anthropocene: We Are Stuck With Oil For Now. Are There Ways to Make it Greener? — A Stanford study published in Science has found that flaring, the burning of unwanted gas associated with oil production, remains the most carbon-intensive part of producing oil. By comparing data from oil fields around the world, the researchers have provided the first detailed analysis of oil production emissions, identifying the main culprits (flaring, for example) as well as first steps towards reducing the industry’s carbon footprint. Despite the moves toward renewable energy and transport powered by it (EVs) by a number of countries along with other GHG mitigating strategies in energy and transport, oil is still going to dominate and so finding ways to reduce the industry’s footprint will become more and more important.

The study team found that oil fields accounted for 5% of global GHG emissions in 2015, higher than the industry estimates. On average, oil production from these fields released 10.3 grams of CO2 equivalent emissions for every megajoule of energy in crude. U.S. crude production emits around 11 grams of emissions. Saudi oil production averages 5 grams because the country’s conventional oil fields do not involve much gas-flaring. Heavy and unconventional sources are much more emissions-intensive: Venezuelan crude releases on average 20 grams and Canadian oil sands average about 18 grams.

Gas flaring was responsible for an average of 22% of the carbon-intensity of oil production. Algeria, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran and the U.S. are among the top 10 in flaring, which amounts to 18–40% of the carbon intensity. The study suggests that eliminating flaring, and cutting methane leaks and venting to rates found in Norway could cut around 43 percent, or 700 megatons of emissions from the oil sector’s annual carbon footprint.

4. Wall Street Journal: Despite Cleanup Vows, Smartphones and Electric Cars Still Keep Miners Digging by Hand in Congo (Subscription Required) — While the 2018 Climate Summit kicked off in San Francisco with many several events and announcements focus on EVs, the Journal published an extensive article on its investigation in to the human rights issues surrounding the mining of cobalt. In short, the situation has not improved for miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 20% cobalt supplies there are mined by hand even by children. The article discusses the challenges for companies that need cobalt for batteries, including companies like Apple, and the auto industry. Creating transparent supply chains has been challenging for the industries involved.  Meantime, global demand for cobalt is soaring, as the figure below shows.

Source: Wall Street Journal, September 2018

The announcements to increase EV adoption around the world increase, and there were many announcements and commitments made during the summit. EV market growth is happening and that trend is going to continue. But, I continue to believe this human sustainability issue is a big optics problem not just for the industries involved, but for policymakers in rich countries pushing hard for EVs but that are not addressing this sustainability issue. See my recent Automotive News op-ed on this issue.

5. Minneapolis Star Tribune: To Cut Pollution from Cars, Minneapolis Wants More Neighborhood Destinations — To meet its 2014 80% GHG reduction goal, the city says driving trips need to be cut by 37% by 2040 from the current 90%. “What we’re saying is, what 37 percent of trips could you eliminate from your life?” said Paul Mogush, city planning manager. “And what would it take to help you get there?” What’s the city planning? Mogush says, “Put the stuff closer together so it’s easier to get to the stuff.” The idea is to bring goods and services closer to where people actually live, and make them easier to get to by foot, bicycling or public transport.

A couple of observations. One, this is not a car ban by any means, but look for other U.S. cities committed to battling climate change to be taking very hard looks at how to cut driving trips. Two, last year, for Future Fuel Outlook members, I looked at U.S. city climate plans focusing on those cities that had pledged to implement the Paris Agreement. Minneapolis was one of those cities. In addition to the above measures, with respect to fuels and vehicles, the city has also pledged to invest in low carbon fuels and electric vehicle infrastructure.  I will update that report this year to track progress.


Tammy Klein is a consultant and strategic advisor providing market and policy intelligence and analysis on transportation fuels to the auto and oil industries, governments, and NGOs. She writes and advises on petroleum fuels, biofuels, alternative fuels, automotive fuels, and fuels policy.

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