Polestar on why solving the climate crisis needs new kinds of collaboration
EXCLUSIVE: The man heading up Polestar’s work to create a climate-neutral car by 2030 without carbon offsetting has explained why achieving this “moonshot” goal – and why delivering net-zero targets more broadly – will require collaboration “way beyond normal” for businesses.
2020 was defined by the pandemic, but also by the rapid growth of the global movement towards net-zero or climate neutrality. The UK was the first major economy to set a legally binding net-zero target for 2050 in 2019, which, along with the growing body of climate science, prompted others to follow suit. National or regional targets now cover more than 90% of global GDP.
Many businesses have sought to go further and faster than governments as the net-zero movement gathered pace. Among them was Swedish automotive firm Polestar, which launched the Polestar 0 project in 2020 with an aim to commercially launch a car that generates no net emissions across its entire life-cycle within a decade.
This is no mean feat, but may be a necessity. Transport accounts for around one-fifth of global CO2 emissions and, in many nations that have worked to decarbonise power, like the UK, it is the highest-emitting sector. Yet simply electrifying everything is not the solution for a number of reasons, including those relating to scaling critical minerals supply chains, improving wellbeing through modal shift and emissions upstream in the electric vehicle supply chain.
“By producing EVs, you eliminate the tailpipe emissions, yes,” the head of the project Hans Pehrson explains to edie. “But emissions exist in the value chain of almost everything we have. Virtually every process we use to create and maintain the society we have today emits CO2.”
As such, striving to create a truly climate-neutral car without resorting to offsetting will require in-depth work with every part of the supply chain. Polestar will need to procure low-emission components that incorporate materials including glass, plastics, aluminium and critical minerals. It will also need to look at more efficient and low-emission ways of transportation, upstream and post-manufacturing.
As Pehrson puts it: “When it comes to our way of working, normal life-cycle analysis work involves you calculating your CO2 footprint per kilogram of plastic, metal and so on. In Polestar 0, we’re more eager to ask: ‘where are the emissions?’ and ‘do the solutions exist to eliminate them?’”
Pehrson, who will be speaking at edie 23 in March (scroll down for details), adds: “I am optimistic – I believe this can be done. The fact that we need a ten-year programme is the sad part. There are very few existing solutions available.”
Working within ‘spider webs’
Today (1 February), Polestar is announcing eight new partners for the Polestar 0 project, opening up possibilities to research, trial and scale new solutions.
Partnering with Polestar are Vitesco Technologies, Schloetter, Autoneum, Stora Enso, TMG Automotive, Gränges, Borgstena and Stena Aluminium. Hailing from countries including Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Finland and Sweden, these organisations bring expertise in materials and components including electrical inverters, packaging, biomaterials, textiles and flat-rolled aluminium. Process expertise within this cohort includes electroplating, metal recycling and textile recycling.
The new partners join existing Polestar 0 collaborators including British firm Pensana, which is working to scale recycling and sustainable procurement for rare earth materials, and Swedish steelmaker SSAB, as part of its pioneering work to commercialise fossil-free steel and aluminium.
Having these partnerships “doesn’t mean we’ve solved all emissions from [certain materials], just that we have really good partners in these areas,” Pehrson explains.
The eight new partners were identified and chosen through two open calls, hosted by Polestar in early 2022 and then in September 2022. The calls were open globally and Polestar was particularly keen to hear from material innovators in the early stages of their work.
In announcing the new partners today, Polestar has emphasised that it still needs the support of additional organisations – especially from academia and in the corporate field. It stated a “critically urgent” need to start research on elements not yet covered by its partnership, including polymers, chemicals and noble gases.
Pehrson tells edie that his team “realised very early on” that “collaboration is needed way beyond normal business-to-business relationships” for a project like Polestar 0, which is striving to achieve what has never been done before.
Collaborations must be longer-term, for one. Polestar and its partners are agreeing to work together for several years, through different stages of innovation. Regarding the car in its entirety, Polestar 0’s project timeline allocates 2021 to 2025 to research, 2025 to 2027 to applied science (including pilots and proofs-of-concept), and 2027 to 2030 to product development.
The priority now is assessing where emissions occur in the supply chain and exploring potential alternatives to these high-carbon materials and processes. In a few years, the focus will be on scaling manufacturing and fine-tuning product design, ready for the first vehicles to be produced in summer 2030. The partnership will evolve in phases.
Collaborations also need to take different shapes, involving partners of different sizes and sectors – in different geographies. “A mix of startups, universities and big multinationals are really needed and they are needed together,” Pehrson says, describing value chains as less like straight lines and more like a “huge spider web” of interactions.
It bears noting that the UK’s competition watchdog is preparing to consult on strategy changes designed to enable business collaboration on initiatives that would reduce emissions or improve climate adaptation across the economy. Climate change mitigation and adaptation could fall under the “fair share” exemption to antitrust rules which prevent business-to-business collaborations which may undermine competition in the market. This could enable more collaborations of the nature Pehrson advocates.
A ‘moonshot’ against offsetting
Pehrson also elaborates on the importance of hosting global open calls: “I really believe that companies are built by people, and we need the best people to solve these really difficult challenges. We don’t look at borders. We need to find the people and the companies willing to sort it out, wherever they are.
“We should not be frightened. We should look at the fact that we have excellent knowledge across the planet today.”
When asked why Polestar has taken a position against offsetting, he explains that this level of focus on the mission at hand – nor this level of belief in emerging innovations – would likely not be garnered if offsets were on the table to any significant degree. Problem solvers, he argues, want the root problem to go away – not to cover up the symptoms.
The Polestar 0 project has been described, by Pehrson and others, as alike to the Apollo moon mission in the 1960s. Both projects strived to achieve a world-first within a decade. Both projects required mission-driven teams with the right teams and partners.
Pehrson spoke to edie amid a fresh wave of scepticism about carbon offsetting systems. An investigative piece of journalism, published in the Guardian in January following nine months of work, claimed that more than 90% of offset credits for rainforest verified by the Verra standard are likely to be ‘phantom credits’ that generate no additional carbon reductions or removals. Verra-certified credits are procured by corporates including Salesforce, BHP, Shell, Disney, Gucci, easyJet and Leon.
As expected, Verra has rebuffed some of the claims, and other players within the offsetting system have spoken out to either differentiate their projects or to support the system in general. But more seeds of distrust in offsetting have been planted. A separate piece of research published in January, following polling more than 500 senior sustainability professionals, found that 41% are not procuring carbon credits for their organisation due to a lack of trust.
Hear more from Polestar at edie 23
Taking place in London on 1-2 March 2023, edie’s biggest annual event has undergone a major revamp to become edie 23, with a new name, new venue, multiple new content streams and myriad innovative event features and networking opportunities.
edie 23 will take place at the state-of-the-art 133 Houndsditch conference venue in central London. Held over two floors, the event will offer up two full days of keynotes, panels, best-practice case studies and audience-led discussions across three themed stages – Strategy, Net-Zero and Action.
Polestar’s Hans Pehrson will be speaking on Day 2 of edie 23 ( March 2) during a panel on ‘practical examples and fresh ideas for collaboration and partnerships’. The panel begins at 11.45am in the Action Theatre and will be chaired by Natura&Co’s global director of advocacy Charmian Love.
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