Between 2030 and 2040 most car manufacturers aim to achieve total carbon neutrality of their industrial operations. This means, in a nutshell, that one by one their factories will have to be certified as 'clean'. But how do you 'neutralise' an activity as complex as a factory, calculating that emissions cannot really be reduced to zero? 

The formula exists and some manufacturers have already successfully applied it, to the point that some of them will reach the milestone of carbon-free production well before the end of this decade.

From Audi to Volvo

Most active on the sustainability front is the Volkswagen Group, which in the wake of Dieselgate a decade ago got to work hard on both the electric transition and factory conversion. However, the reality is that the path of decarbonisation is being followed independently by each brand, and the most advanced in this regard are currently Audi and Skoda.

Specifically, the German firm will be the first to achieve neutrality in all its production centres and it will do so in 2025, when the last factories, those of Neckarsulm in Germany and San José Chiapa in Mexico, will have aligned themselves with the standards of the rest of the plants. In fact, at present, both Brussels and Gyor (Hungary) are already neutral, while the Ingolstadt plant will be fully neutral as of 1 January 2024.

Skoda, with its gearbox plant in Vrchalbi (Czech Republic), and Porsche, with its Zuffenhausen plant near Stuttgart, where it is based, have also announced 'green' plants.

In addition to these, there are many plants (some even in China, such as Volvo's in Chengdu, for example) that already use 100% renewable energy, one of the important steps towards neutral production. But what are the others? Audi itself has established its factory decarbonisation programme on four pillars, which are as follows.

Fabbriche a zero emissioni, ecco come si può fare

The Audi factory situation

1 - Reducing consumption

The first point is to achieve maximum efficiency in all processes, from logistics to actual production, by reducing all waste and thus energy requirements.

In 2022, for example, the implementation of a series of measures developed with advanced process analyses enabled the Ingolstadt plant to save more than 35,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy and reduce more than 5,000 tonnes of CO emissions.

Fabbriche a zero emissioni, ecco come si può fare

Photovoltaic systems are becoming increasingly important in factories.

2 - Self-production of energy

Having one's own energy source protects against supply problems and cost fluctuations. More and more factories are building large photovoltaic systems on roofs, car parks and farms, which cover a significant part of the total demand. In Ingolstadt, Audi has an area of 23,000 m2 and in the coming years all plants will increase their solar energy production.

3 - 100% 'green' energy

In addition to self-generated energy, energy from external supplies must also be 'green' and guaranteed: in Ingolstadt this has been the case since 2012, and the origin of this energy ranges from other photovoltaic plants to gas-fired power plants using methane from plant biomass, where emissions are balanced by the CO2 absorbed by the plants themselves in their life cycle.

Fabbriche a zero emissioni, ecco come si può fare

4 - Offsetting the rest

With the above steps, Audi has reduced the carbon footprint of the plants in question by around 90%. The fourth and final pillar concerns offsetting the remaining 10%, which is done by purchasing carbon credits. In essence, you pay to buy clean air quotas.

In short, it is the same as what many industries do to offset pollution and meet the Kyoto Protocol limits, by financing countries with low industrial development and consequently lower pollution levels. 

Of course, this can also be achieved by intervening directly in the environment and the territory, for example by creating parks and nature reserves, both near and outside factories, by participating in reforestation projects and by promoting biodiversity. In essence, it is about creating and safeguarding green areas, natural lungs which, according to the same principle, can balance part of the emissions by absorbing large quantities of CO2

Gallery: Zero-emission factories, this is how it can be done