By on October 14, 2011

Light-weight materials such as carbon-fiber, aluminum and magnesium are widely touted as key components of the drive towards greater fuel economy. Which explains why the automotive steel supplier industry is suddenly calling for an end to tailpipe emissions testing and a switch to the more holistic life cycle analysis testing. According to a press release from WorldAutoSteel, an industry group, the production of steel alternatives can create up to 20 times the carbon emissions of steel.

Director Cees ten Broek explains

When vehicle emissions assessments are focused solely on the emissions produced during the driving phase (tailpipe), it encourages the use of greenhouse gas-intensive materials in the effort to reduce vehicle weight and fuel consumption. However, this may have the unintended consequence of increasing greenhouse gas emissions during the vehicle’s total life cycle. Regulations that focus only on one part of the vehicle’s life cycle will become immediately out of date as the electric vehicle becomes more prominent on the road. We are only shifting the problem to other vehicle life cycle phases.

It’s always interesting to watch industries react when their self-interest suddenly aligns with idealism, but steel industry self-interest isn’t a reason to reject this idea out of hand. A study by the engineering firm Ricardo [PDF here] shows that as batteries and lightweight materials increase the amount of “embedded carbon” in cars, the production-side emissions are expected to reach 57% of life cycle emissions. In light of this trend, it’s not difficult to see why regulating tailpipe emissions alone makes little sense in a comprehensive carbon-regulation scheme. But, as the Ricardo study also shows, life cycle analysis is difficult and complicated. Imagining those complex calculations being fed into the complexity of a CAFE-style program literally makes the mind boggle.

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14 Comments on “Steel Industry: Replace Tailpipe Emissions Testing With Lifecycle Analysis...”

  • avatar

    Well-said, Ed.

    But the “iron-y” of the situation is that most consumers don’t care about total lifecycle impact except to their wallet. If the steel industry approached the issue from that angle, they might get somewhere.

    I doubt that a lifecycle analysis will cause many Prius owners to switch to an F-150, for example.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a Prius, and a few years ago everybody I knew was emailing some bogus study about how some Hummer was better overall than a Prius. If there was a serious study that showed lifecycle improvements, I’d certainly consider it next go around. In the meantime, I fully expect more of the Prius to be recycled than a lot of regular cars.

      • 0 avatar

        Not only that, but considering the mileages I’m seeing on some used Prius’, their build quality suggests that the average lifespan of a Prius will actually be quite long. Perhaps not the 30-40 year battered-old-truck long, but longer than other similar sized cars. After all it’s got to be more environmentally friendly keeping an old fuel efficient car on the road than scrapping/recycling it.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    I don’t buy into that 57% number for a second. Try less than 5% if that. Guess it all comes down to who’s “Engineering Study” you believe.

    • 0 avatar

      I think they mean outliers like the Volt. It is easy enough to compare energy consumed during use to energy used during production by looking at price. The market is funny in that it allocates resources more efficiently than any corrupt tyrant can dream of. If you’re paying a $20,000 premium to save $900 in fuel every year for something with a 9-12 year service life, you’re not using resources properly. By adding taxes to further pervert the market, you can only lead to greater loss of utility.

      • 0 avatar

        Probably anything consumers buy is a waste of resources if it’s not basic, then.

        If something is happening to the atmosphere, and there is although the cause of that is disputed, then, if I had the money, I’d spend it on something with advanced technology that may help out down the road.

        I can see myself buying a Tesla Roadster instead of a Porsche because of that, although I’d have to pipe in engine noise because that’s what I still expect from a sports car.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you’re missing some energy inputs. Everything that goes into designing, manufacturing, marketing, and transporting a vehicle is a product of energy. From the fuel for the helicopters surveying a potential mine site to the fuel for a CEO flying to a meeting and the energy to operate the building where the meeting is held, it’s all included in the cost, and it’s all based on consuming energy or converting energy from one form to another. Sure, there’s a bit of skewing by subsidies and things, but if you want a good estimate of how much energy/resources you’re consuming, look at cost. The initial cost of a vehicle typically accounts for far more than 5% of the lifetime cost.

  • avatar

    As long as carbon emissions from industrial smokestacks are treated no different than from tailpipes, the end result still won’t be so biased.

  • avatar

    As someone once said “There’s lies, damned lies and statistics!”
    When industries start throwing around claims about “production side emissions” I get highly suspicious. Let’s look at the steel industry”
    the ore has to be mined, shipped to the mills along with other key elements like limestone and coke, processed into pig iron, then steel, rolled and then shipped to suppliers to be fabricated into parts. Each step takes considerable energy and if you employ the same “embedded carbon” studies the production side emissions of carbon from the steel industry is probably greater.

  • avatar
    George B

    This analysis only matters if you believe that carbon dioxide is causing catastrophic climate change and some central planner needs to do something about it. In the real dynamic decentralized world these tradoffs are solved by the relative price of energy vs. the price of materials. Not all energy is equal in price. Coal is inexpensive, but very inconvenient for mobile use. Natural gas, methane, is more expensive than coal, but it flows in a pipeline. LP gas, propane and butane, are more expensive than natural gas, but storage tanks are relatively inexpensive. Oil based liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel fuel are more expensive than solid coal or gaseous fuel, but they are valuable because they have higher energy density and are much easier to put into a fuel tank. If you can take cheap energy like coal or natural gas and use it to make a product that saves expensive liquid fuel, the economics may work even if the carbon accounting isn’t very green.

  • avatar

    Something more complicated than CAFE sounds exactly like what bureaucrats want to get their hands on.

  • avatar

    In defense of EV’s, it’s probably more cost effective to control emissions at large power plants than in millions of cars.

    That said, as CAFE and emissions testing become more economically painful, the political price of keeping these standards may be too high. Laws can change…

  • avatar

    I always love how parties try to jump on a bandwagon without actually acknowledging the bandwagon’s legitimacy. Is the steel industry prepared to admit that anthropomorphic carbon emmissions are causing a climate problem?

  • avatar

    1. If we switch to carbon composites from steel, then you should include the sequestered carbon in the car itself.

    2. The longer you keep your car, the greater the fuel component of the calculation will be. You only have to make the structure once, but you have to continually fuel it. Keep it long enough and what it’s made of becomes virtually irrelevant (so long as it lasts that long).

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