13 November 2019

A winding road towards sustainable transportation


In terms of climate change awareness, 2019 has seen a major breakthrough. Governments and business decision makers alike are now under pressure to take action and, in a race against time, introduce new solutions to lower global CO2 emissions. But when time is short, we are often tempted to cut corners. And this also applies to the search for a clean and efficient power source – a future fuel. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that fossil fuel usage must be cut in half within 15 years and annual global emissions must hit net zero within 30 years. Yet, fossil fuels are still positioned to dominate the energy landscape over the next few decades,  especially in developing countries. Meanwhile, we already have our eyes set on the one solution that will solve our problems – electrification. But is it so simple? Let’s look at some numbers.

The cars of the future are already here

Official Eurostat figures show that in 2017, there were 262 million cars registered in the EU Member States, with the average passenger car being 11 years old. Twelve months later, only around 2% of these were electric vehicles. And although sales of these kinds of cars are expected to rise, at the same time, so will the popularity of heavier vehicles like SUVs. In 2019 alone, sales of the latter increased by 5.9%, sending their market share to 36%. This data leads to several grim conclusions. 

Firstly, in the short- to mid-term, electrification alone – although it is a viable long-term solution – will not solve the big challenge of reaching emission targets. Secondly, the cars of the near future are already here, as the average car of 2030 is sold today. These are traditional vehicles powered by combustion engines, which will remain a common sight on most of the world’s roads in the next few decades. 

Lastly, regulating electric vehicles based only on tank-to-wheel emissions paints an unrealistic image in which these vehicles are associated with no emissions at all. For us to see the true potential of possible GHG reductions, accurate figures should be taken into account. This means looking at both battery production, electricity generation and a vehicle’s total lifecycle emissions. In this complex reality, I perceive sustainable solutions – such as biofuels – as essential for meeting emission targets.

For a decade now, our growth in this area has been accelerating. Since the introduction of Neste MY Renewable Diesel several years ago, we have observed demand rise even more, largely driven by consumer interest in practical products that lower CO2 emissions. As a drop-in solution, our alternative fuels can be used in any existing vehicle and vehicle fleet without the need for new fuel logistics or engine technology. In an automotive market transitioning towards clean alternatives, they are a cost-effective, long-term solution to CO2 emissions. But even the perfect solution is often not enough.

A sound strategy is needed

In my opinion, legislators and businesses alike should take a step back and look at the challenge more holistically and honestly, keeping a life-cycle approach in mind. We understand the magnitude of the challenge and can predict how the automotive market will be shaped in the coming years. This knowledge tells us that parallel, complementary actions should be taken. In other words, the most pragmatic way forward is to prepare the global market for an electrification roll out at a reasonable pace, while developing cleaner battery production and electricity generation at the same time. All the while, this transition can and should be supported by the increased availability and use of a readily accessible solution – biofuels.

A long journey lies ahead of us. And there is no silver bullet for stopping climate change. Still, we need to act fast, but also ensure that our choices are wise and optimally support our sustainable actions. And to do that, we just might need to travel down several paths at the same time, instead of one winding road.

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Teemu Sarjovaara
Teemu Sarjovaara
Head of R&D, Products & Applications, Neste