This May, a U.S. government observatory atop Hawaii's dormant Mauna Loa volcano recorded history in the making. Scientists measured levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide that reached 415 parts per million. Not even the oldest core samples taken from glacial ice formed half a million years before the arrival of homo sapiens had trapped such high concentrations, they say.
What followed were weeks of extreme weather patterns that culminated in July as the hottest month ever recorded by the World Meteorological Organization. Nature seems to be telling mankind that it is living on borrowed time. Sensing the rising concern over what has been called a "climate emergency," Europe's automakers are hoping to ditch their image as polluters and go green.
Starting with CO2-neutral plants modeled on the likes of Audi's e-tron EV plant in Belgium, the ultimate goal is to eventually operate "zero-impact factories" that leave no ecological footprint.
"We don't need one strategy for running our business and a separate one for sustainability," Daimler CEO Ola Kallenius said. "We need our business model itself to be sustainable."
Some automakers have said they won't give contracts to suppliers that do not take sufficient action to reduce their environmental impact, including decarbonizing their entire businesses over the long term in keeping with the Paris Climate Agreement.
This landmark climate deal aims to minimize the global temperature increase from man-made emissions that is already 1 degree Celsius to well below 2C by 2050.
This goal looks increasingly unrealistic without drastic action, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded last October. In a report that took almost three years to complete, the IPCC documented what trends such as the acidification of the ocean, the world's largest carbon sink, would mean for the survival of the human race.
Europe's governments are now analyzing plans to impose a blanket price on CO2 emissions for the remaining 55 percent of the economy thus far shielded from the EU's cap-and-trade emissions scheme, such as road transport. In other words, fleet emissions legislation for new cars -- while a key motivator underpinning automakers' EV plans -- is now no longer the sole regulatory risk influencing their carbon strategy.
"Roughly three quarters of all industry CO2 emissions are generated during a car's operation over its lifetime, but 18 percent still comes from the supply chain," said Luke Fletcher, senior analyst for investor research and autos specialist at Carbon Disclosure Project. "As sales of battery-powered vehicles displace their combustion engine rivals, that share will steadily become more important over time."
Still grappling with the aftermath of VW Group's diesel-cheating scandal, the VW brand began the new trend by promising that its first mass-market electric vehicle, the ID3, will be the first car delivered to European customers entirely carbon neutral. Any CO2 produced that cannot be avoided will be offset at additional cost via certified programs.
VW has already set up a carbon fund financed with an initial tranche of 50 million euros. Management is even considering playing an active role. "Eventually, we really want to co-develop these projects and define their goals jointly," Michael Liebert, head of sustainability for the brand, told Automotive News Europe.
Daimler, which reports say will face a German fine of more than 1 billion euros for diesel emissions fraud, has pledged that all new Mercedes-Benz plants will be carbon neutral from the start of operation while existing European sites will reach the same goal by 2022. Kallenius aims to link a portion of management pay to the achievement of these goals, even if the CEO won't specify how much.
A common first step is sourcing electricity from renewable sources, with BMW going the furthest among automakers. Already next year, all 31 global manufacturing plants from Mexico to Malaysia will source only green energy.
"Our vision is clear: sustainable mobility produced in a sustainable manner," former BMW CEO Harald Krueger told reporters shortly before stepping down last month. The company is due to update its long-term sustainability strategy next year.