25 June 2019

No more room for friction in our sustainability efforts

Modern transport relies on a wide range of invisible yet essential lubricants. But moving people and cargo with cars, trucks, planes and ships has a huge impact on our planet’s health. Our industry has to ask itself a big question – what can we do to make transport more sustainable and combat climate change?

First, the cold, hard facts. According to the European Commission, transport is responsible for nearly a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This makes it the second biggest emitting sector – after energy. And there is more: despite all the efforts to make the industry more sustainable, its contributions to total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 33% between 1990 and 2007. In contrast, other sectors reduced their share by 15%. Lowering these numbers for transport is a challenge that calls for immediate action.

Understanding the challenge to lower emissions

Until now, every generation of humans has increased its resource use. This is a challenge for the lubricant and base oil industry, as the raw materials it uses – mostly crude oil – are not renewable. Additionally, fossil-based fuels are the main source of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Climate change – and the dangers associated with it – are pushing industries worldwide to act, and the lubricant and base oil industry should do the same. As a matter of fact, some steps have already been taken towards sustainable development, as Apu Gosalia, VP of Sustainability (CSO) & Global Intelligence, FUCHS PETROLUB SE explains:

“Generally, our lubricants industry reduces more CO2-emissions with its finished products in the use phase at customers’ applications, than it actually produces in making these products. Thus, it is important that we start working toward measuring, managing and modifying impacts and optimization potentials at every point in our process and value chain. This will be one of the tasks in our recently launched UEIL Sustainability Task Force.”

The ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions hinges on our understanding of the impact these products have on sustainability and the accuracy of our emissions projections. To this end, life cycle assessment (LCA) is a valuable tool that provides quantitative measurement of the greenhouse gas emission per kg of product or per energy unit (MJ) of a product. But the challenge in adopting LCA for lubricants is that it is seldom used in the industry, with one key issue being the difficulty in establishing commonly accepted system boundaries for the breadth of data sources used in LCA calculations.

In other words, despite the fact that there are general and specific standards for conducting LCA analyses it remains difficult to compare results across sectors and to date, no specific LCA rules for lubricants exist. Should any and all processes that have an environmental impact during a product’s lifecycle be taken into account? Or can some – like sea transport to a lubricant plant – be omitted because of their potentially small impact? As numerous options are available and taken into account in different scenarios, the end result can vary a lot, depending on how the boundaries for the assessment are set. And not to even mention all the other impact categories in addition to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions that could be considered in LCA.

A simplified solution to a complex situation

One effective way to address this challenge is to implement a cradle-to-grave approach in assessing the total life cycle of lubricants. This methodology covers every step, from sourcing raw materials and processing them into base oils to the assessment of processed lubricants in use and their eventual disposal - incineration in the end releases the carbon in the hydrocarbon molecules into the air as carbon dioxide.

This comprehensive approach can be used to determine the carbon footprints of lubricants and provide clear indicators of their lifecycle stage during which the most substantial greenhouse gas emissions can be reported. This, in turn, shows where there is the most room for reductions. A cradle-to-grave approach also grants the industry unique insight into the possibilities for developing new, enhanced and sustainable products of the highest quality.

Reducing emissions where it matters

A simple example shows how this approach could be applied. Take a European passenger car using regular engine oil, with an average fuel consumption of 6 litres/100 km. On a 30,000 km drive one oil change is needed. For the entire journey, this translates to 1800 litres of fuel burnt and 10 litres of oil used.

A higher quality oil that is optimized for fuel economy and has double the lifetime would shrink these numbers substantially. Assuming this simple solution would lower fuel consumption by 1% and engine oil consumption by 50% translates to 18 kg CO2e /kg long-life oil emissions saved. Considering the carbon footprint of the vehicle’s fossil-based engine oil is assessed at 4.5 to 5.5 CO2e/kg lubricant by life cycle assessment, the greenhouse gas savings achieved by the enhanced lubricant in use can be seen as considerably greater. Both fuel and emission savings can be made even greater with further developments such as enhancing the quality of the lubricant’s main component – base oil – while manufacturing it from renewable waste and residues. Although a consensus still needs to be reached regarding LCA calculation methodology, the power of this simple example can already be put into perspective by applying it to hundreds, thousands or millions of cars.

It is important to understand that when responding to climate change, the preferred course of action in our industry should be to focus on areas with the greatest potential for improvement, usually found in energy or fuel savings enabled by lubricant technology. One of these is long-life engine oils used in transportation. An optimistic view of the possibilities is shared by industry representatives, as John Uhran, Director of Strategy & New Business development, The Lubrizol Corporation, explains:

“I see great opportunity in connecting product development with sustainability. By identifying where lubricants and fuels can have the greatest impact, highly beneficial advancements should be achievable both in the short- and long-term. I also believe that sustainability will continue to increase in importance as a factor in how lubricants are assessed.”

Transform expenses into profits

Ultimately, one of the most important questions that any business will ask itself is “how much will the move towards sustainability cost us?” But that question should be “how can my business profit from investing in sustainability?”

One example demonstrates the power of this question and its answer. A little over a decade ago, Neste entered into renewable fuels by establishing a new business unit. This move initially required investments in developing the needed technologies, patenting them and even constructing specialized production plants. Despite the profitless years invested in developing the market, in the long run, these actions have provided a visible return on investment. The renewable products business unit yielded almost 1 billion EUR in profits in 2018 alone! Concurrently, it helped eliminate nearly 8 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to removing 3 million cars from roads worldwide annually.

What should be noted in this example is not only the return on investment. The commitment and faith in positive outcomes are probably even more important as there are no quick wins for such bold initiatives. Furthermore, an industry-wide change does not happen overnight, but instead comes when key players are determined to reach goals, even if the objectives seem unachievable at first. In short, sustainability efforts need to be approached with a positive mindset and confidence. Making the planet a better place for future generations is possible, and it can be combined with creating new sources of revenue. Now is the time to unite our industry in this vital cause.

The summary of this article has been published in the June 2019 digital edition of Lubes'N'Greases EMEA.

Mika Kettunen
Mika Kettunen
Technical Product Manager, Base Oils