Steffen Bubeck holds a doctorate in energy engineering. He works in the Group's energy management department, where he deals with the question of how carbon dioxide can be neutralised and offset as effectively as possible. A conversation about promising technologies on the way to green zero.
Mr Bubeck, what does "net zero" actually mean?
Quite literally: net zero emissions. Behind this is the question as to the level of emissions released into the atmosphere by mankind over a period of, say, one year. It is precisely these emissions that must be offset during that year through appropriate neutralisation measures, in other words by the removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere. This is the target state defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that must be achieved globally by the middle of the century at the latest in order to limit global warming to a tolerable level.
What is the difference between offsetting and neutralising CO₂?
With offsetting, CO₂ emissions are 'saved' by comparison with a comparative state that would otherwise have occurred. Through the financial contribution involved in offsetting, people can thus help to reduce emissions. An example here would be the construction of a wind farm instead of a coal-fired power plant. These measures mostly take place in developing countries. Offsetting, in other words, prevents new emissions from entering the atmosphere. Neutralisation, on the other hand, involves actively removing CO₂ from the atmosphere and storing it as permanently as possible, thereby compensating for historical emissions. These so-called negative emission technologies involve different procedures.
What are these?
We distinguish between nature-based approaches and technical solutions. The best-known example of nature-based approaches is certainly afforestation, but there are also projects in the field of marine ecosystems, such as mangrove forests or seagrass. The crux of nature-based approaches is always the question as to how long the emissions are stored for. Afforestation, for example, involves comparatively short periods of up to 100 years. Although technical solutions allow for a longer storage period, they are still relatively expensive at the moment.
The storage of carbon dioxide underground - on land or below the seabed - is certainly the best-known technical method.
Yes, also known as CCS - Carbon Capture and Storage. There are different procedures for this. With DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage), CO₂ is extracted from the air with the help of energy and stored permanently underground, for example in depleted oil or gas deposits. This requires a high energy input, which in turn has to be covered by renewable energies. Another process would be BECCS, which is Bioenergy CCS: this involves burning biomass, extracting energy from it, separating out the CO₂ produced and storing it. These are both negative emission technologies that reduce emissions in the atmosphere for a long-term period. But even with these procedures, there are unfortunately still question marks.
In what sense?
Any leaks, for example, could cause environmental damage. It must be ensured that the stored CO₂ remains permanently and completely in the reservoirs. I think we should not overestimate the role of CCS and try to convince ourselves that this is the saviour for all climate problems. Nevertheless, we should not rule it out either, because we will simply need negative emission technologies. This is also shown by the scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which incorporate these technologies. That is why it is important that their development continues, both technically and cost-wise, so that we as a company will also be able to rely on them in the future.
And what are we betting on now?
Speaking for our production facilities: from 2022, our own Mercedes-Benz production sites will produce in a CO₂-neutral manner. This means that we reduce emissions as much as possible and rely on high-quality offset projects. Natural gas is an energy source that we currently still make considerable use of and for which we therefore compensate. At the same time, we are also working to increase the use of CO₂-neutral energy sources such as biogas. In the long term, our goal must be to reduce the use of fossil fuels to a large extent and thus achieve the decarbonisation of our company.
Which specific offset projects do we support, as a company?
They include projects from the field of renewable energies, such as wind farms and geothermal plants, and development aid projects, such as drinking water production or small-scale biogas plants. Development aid projects are deployed in Africa, among other places, and bring positive effects in terms of health and the environment in addition to the CO₂ savings.
What do you have to look out for in these offset projects?
For four things. Firstly: the additionality of the project. The offsetting must involve a project that would not otherwise have existed. Secondly: the project must lead to a real and lasting reduction in CO₂ emissions. Thirdly: there should be no "leakage", whereby additional emissions occur elsewhere. And fourthly: double counting should be avoided so that CO₂ savings are not claimed twice. We rely on the gold standard when it comes to compensation projects. This is the highest quality standard, which also verifies these criteria.
What do you say to the critical voices that claim offsetting is rather like the selling of indulgences, and does not really serve climate protection?
The motto that we regularly invoke is: avoid - reduce - compensate. As long as we follow this principle and try to reduce wherever possible, in the end it is better to compensate than to do nothing. Offsetting simply makes it possible to increase the potential for saving CO2₂, especially in developing countries where the measures can be realised more cost-effectively. Offsetting is a great tool for this, especially during the transformation phase. And what's more, the projects there help to achieve further sustainability goals.
How did you personally come to the topic of sustainability?
I studied technical business administration at the University of Stuttgart, specialising in energy management and energy technology for my main degree. For my doctorate, I worked on the electrification of our energy system. The research question was whether, in order to reduce CO₂ ,it would not make sense to use more electricity in the future instead of other energy sources, since this is increasingly being generated from renewable sources. This is exactly the development we are now seeing everywhere. In general, I find it incredibly motivating to see how we as a company are gradually setting ourselves more ambitious goals. And how we are also reaching them. I am thinking, for example, of the topic of green electricity in our plants, or green charging.
I am sustainable in my private life by..."...avoiding air travel, cycling to work and eating little meat. Plus, of course, I have a solar panel on the roof."
In the future, my job will... "...continue to grow in importance and at some point, I hope, become superfluous."
Twenty years from now, Mercedes-Benz will..."... I hope have proved for the second time how mobility can be fundamentally reinvented."