If anyone can objectively say what impact our vehicles have on the environment, it is Klaus Ruhland. Since 1995, he has been an expert for environmental protection and product related life cycle assessment at Daimler. In our interview, he explains why electric cars are greener than their reputation and why Ambition2039 is far more than just a good story.
Mr Ruhland, what is the reason why you have remained true to your job for so long?
Quite simple: I really like change! The topic of environmental protection is always changing socially, politically and technologically. My job changes accordingly. The special thing about it is that there is no room for saying "we've always done it this way". I am very pleased to see that the topic of sustainability has become much more important in society in recent years. The issue has been firmly anchored in our company for many years - but it is now more present than ever.
Life cycle assessment, life cycle assessment, life cycle assessment, 360-degree environmental check: many terms for the same thing?
Laughs – that is all the same! In an environmental or life cycle assessment, we assess the potential environmental impact of our products along their entire life cycle. We prepare this life cycle analysis according to the international ISO standard 14040 and have it checked by an independent, external body. We publish the final, audited version as a "360-degree environmental check" - as for our Mercedes-Benz EQC, for example. (Mercedes-Benz EQC 400 4MATIC: power consumption combined: 20.8 - 19.7 kWh/100 km; CO₂ emissions combined: 0 g/km)**
Basis for the preparation of a life cycle assessment is the ISO standard 14040 of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The international standard defines the rules of methodology. Afterwards, the analysis follows four stages: Target definition and investigation framework, life cycle inventory, impact assessment and evaluation.
What are the steps behind an environmental check?
We look at the life cycle of a vehicle - from the cradle to the grave. In other words, from the extraction of raw materials, the production of individual components, the assembly of the vehicle, driving operation, fuel or electricity production, right through to recycling. In the so-called Life Cycle Inventory, we prepare a complete and transparent input-output analysis for each vehicle: How many materials and energy resources are consumed? The outputs include all emissions such as CO₂, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, waste, wastewater or overburden from the mining of materials. I am in contact with a great many colleagues inside and outside our Group: with buyers, suppliers, logistics specialists, production and of course with many developers.
And what happens with all this information?
We assign environmental impacts to all materials and emissions. That means we assess how much weight they carry in the balance sheet. For environmental impact assessments, scientific methods are needed to measure and calculate them transparently. Finally, we prepare the final Life Cycle Assessment, which we have externally audited.
Why are external reports important for Daimler when it comes to environmental protection?
As the saying goes: Trust is good - control is better. The experts from TÜV (German Technical Inspection Agency) put us through our paces with every Life Cycle Assessment and check all figures and steps. The extensive testing carried out by an external institute underscores the transparency and credibility of our work: a quality seal according to ISO standards that you can rely on. Daimler was the first automaker to do so in 2005.
Are there any environmental issues that are in focus?
All of them, actually, because we don't have a pollutant of the week (laughs). Of course, one of the focal points is climate protection, but we look at five environmental impacts in total: greenhouse effect, acidification, eutrophication, energy consumption and criticality of raw materials.
With regard to critical raw materials: What strategy is being pursued here?
Replacement is not always the solution. Depending on why a raw material is classified as critical, different strategies are used. In the case of purely geological risks, for example, we can force the use of secondary materials. We consider how to minimize critical raw materials on a case-by-case basis - right from the very beginning in the development process of our products. In the coming generations of cars and batteries, for example, significantly less cobalt will be used.
Why are values for climate change given in CO₂ equivalents in the life cycle assessments?
After all, it is not only the actual quantities of the respective emissions that are important, but also their respective impact on the environment. For example, one kilogram of methane has 21 times the effect on climate change than one kilogram of CO₂. One kilogram of sulphur hexafluoride SF6 has even 22,000 times the effect. That is why we need a single currency: the weighting of an emission in terms of the greenhouse gas effect is expressed in CO₂ equivalents and finds its way into the balance sheet as an environmental impact category.
What about other emissions or pollutants?
As a global environmental effect, climate change is of course very much in focus. But we also look at local environmental aspects such as improving air quality in the case of particle or nitrogen oxide emissions in city centers.
Where are Life Cycle Assessments used at Daimler today?
It all began with the market launch of the first A-Class generation. At that time, we were initially commissioned to calculate the environmental impact of a fender made of steel, aluminum and plastic. Then, parallel to the series production project, the first complete vehicle life cycle assessment was drawn up.
Life cycle assessments are currently being calculated for all new passenger car series, and since last year, also for selected alternative drive concepts in the bus and truck sector. With this database, we can then also determine the entire CO₂ footprint of our company, including all upstream and downstream processes.
Another new feature is the environmental assessment of mobility concepts. Here, for example, we examine the environmental benefits of car sharing systems.
The Mercedes-Benz EQC's 360-degree environmental check was published recently. How long did it take and who was involved?
For a classic life cycle assessment, we now need about three months including the final report. But with the EQC, we had to cover completely new technologies, for example, battery production. For six months, we worked together with our colleagues in battery development, production and purchasing to determine the environmental impacts cleanly: How is a cell manufactured? How are the anode and cathode produced? What materials are used overall? This was the only way to develop a sound database.
That sounds complex. Where do you start?
With a parts list of the vehicle, which has about 2,500 part numbers. We combine this list with material information from our suppliers and thus obtain a first result: the material balance of the vehicle, also known as the "Bill of Materials". In our life cycle assessment, we then assign detailed production and manufacturing processes to the individual components.
How is the utilisation phase calculated?
We calculate the CO₂ balance for the use phase using the fuel consumption of the vehicle: How much CO₂ emissions are produced during driving? How many kilograms of CO₂ are produced during the production of one liter of fuel from the well to the gas station? For electric vehicles such as EQC, we consider how many kilograms of CO₂ are produced to produce one kilowatt hour of electricity for charging the vehicle. As a reference value, i.e. to make the various life cycle assessments comparable, we always take 200,000 kilometers of mileage as a basis.
Where do you see further potential for reducing CO₂ emissions from electric mobility?
In an electric vehicle, steel, aluminum and battery cells add up to about 80 percent of the total CO₂ footprint of the manufacturing phase. There is therefore also potential in production processes for the metallic materials. This raises the question: What can we agree with our suppliers to make their processes more environmentally friendly? Our Ambition2039 creates clear perspectives and objectives here, also for our suppliers.
Is there anything that surprised you about the EQC's environmental performance?
The shift in environmental impacts from driving to material production is very clear. The CO₂ footprint of producing a battery alone is almost as high as that of an entire combustion engine. The positive thing is that thanks to our analysis we know exactly what we can improve. In the future, we will use renewable energies in production and are also in close contact with our suppliers. For example, in the manufacture of battery cells alone, CO₂ emissions will be reduced by well over 30 percent in the future.
So is the electric drive not an advantage at all when it comes to saving CO₂?
Sure it is! Let's go into a little more detail and compare the electric Mercedes-Benz EQC with a conventional combustion engine such as the Mercedes-Benz GLC with the same engine configuration. For the first time, the electric car has a higher footprint in production: 16.4 metric tons of CO₂ emissions compared to around 8 metric tons of emissions from a conventional GLC. A clear case, one might think. When it comes to CO₂, however, it is always the overall balance that counts. And here the EQC is clearly ahead, especially in the use phase.
What does that mean in figures?
Even if I charge the EQC with EU electricity mix, the EQC is in total more than 40 percent better than a combustion engine car with regular fuel over the entire life cycle. However, if I charge renewable electricity - and that must be our goal - the EQC is almost 70 percent better than the combustion engine car over its entire life cycle. So the argument that e-vehicles are not as environmentally friendly as we thought because of their complex production process and the greater use of materials is not true.
And how do you manage to keep the use of resources low? For example, the EQC weighs much more than the GLC?
That's right, the material consumption is higher. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing, because the materials for the car and battery are not lost per se. We can recover them at the end of the vehicle's life by recycling.
Which innovations do you think will be most promising for the future?
I am a big fan of the recycling industry. Today, we think about recycled steel, aluminum or cobalt right from the outset in the vehicle concept. We have also been using recycled plastics for years: components with a total weight of more than 40 kilograms are made from a proportion of secondary plastics, for example in the underbody or wheel arch linings.
Do the recyclates also come from your own cycles?
Some of them. A broken bumper, for example, is collected at our branches via our Mercedes-Benz Recycling System, recycled and then ends up as a recyclate in a new vehicle.
Are renewable resources also an issue?
We have already used natural materials such as flax, sisal, cotton fibres, or wood in our vehicles, for example in the door trim. In our environmental checks, customers find out exactly how many recyclates and renewable raw materials are contained in their vehicles.
How are recycling concepts included in the balance sheet?
At the end of the life cycle, 95 percent by weight of each vehicle must be recycled, this is regulated by law. For example, steel becomes steel again and aluminum becomes aluminum again, although not in exactly the same form. The cost of dismantling and shredding the vehicle is also included in our Life Cycle Assessment. However, the secondary raw materials only receive a CO₂ credit when they are reused as secondary materials in a new vehicle. We use the so called closed loop approach.
In your opinion, where is Daimler already a pioneer in terms of environmental balance?
We have been reporting transparently and consistently on the environmental impacts of our vehicles over their entire life cycle for many years. This contributes greatly to our credibility. Ambition2039 is not just a story - we already have been working for a long time to achieve these goals.
To what extent am I, as a driver, responsible for the carbon footprint of my electric car?
All I can say is: Charge green! It sounds so simple, yet it's the only way to make electric mobility truly sustainable. Many providers of charging infrastructures already offer green electricity today - for example, our joint venture IONTY for a fast charging infrastructure on Europe's main transport routes. However, a lot still needs to happen. Particularly in terms of transparency: At present, the green electricity charging infrastructure is still quite confusing.
Dr.-Ing. Klaus Ruhland is a manager in the department "Sustainability, Corporate Environmental Protection and Energy Management". Together with his team, he carries out holistic environmental assessments of Daimler products, which are published as a 360-degree environmental check. He has been with the company since 1995 - always with a focus on environmental protection and thinking along with the development processes. In addition, Ruhland regularly passes on his knowledge to students in lectures and supports formats such as the eco-balance workshop. He is co-author of the book "Measuring Resource Efficiency with the ESSENZ Method: Integrated Method for Holistic Assessment", published by Springer Verlag in 2016.