Climate change: why ICE is (part of) the problem and (part of) the solution

The internal combustion engine (ICE) gets a lot of bad press these days. With ICE accounting for around 10% of greenhouse gas emissions across cars, trucks, rail and shipping, and with cars accounting for a little under half of this, it is easy to understand why. In a world where CO2 emissions are around seven times as high as they were half way through the last century, ICE pollution alone exceeds total global CO2 emissions in the earlier stages of the 20th Century. With global temperatures continuing to hit new highs, warmer oceans impacting maritime ecosystems, and more frequent extreme weather causing chaos across much of the planet, there is no doubt that global environmental emissions are unsustainable, and that the internal combustion engine features prominently in this issue.

ICE development has come a long way since the early patents by the likes of Nicolaus Otto, Dugald Clerk, and Karl Benz in the 1870’s and 1880’s. At this point in time the automobile had not yet broken through as a luxury item, let alone the mass market product it would become, and it would be a few years until a full one horse power was achieved, although given the pace of innovation not that many years before it was exceeded by multiples of 10. As these early automotive innovators made the engineering breakthroughs that would create this nascent industry they could be excused of not comprehending the future environmental impact that would accompany the growth and benefits it would drive. The ICE innovation curve has accelerated ever since. Fast forward 150 years and it is possible that this incredible innovation journey has peaked. The highest year on record for ICE patents is 2018 which has been followed by a decline in each of the subsequent two years. This reduction is happening at such a rate that you have to go back to 2011 for a year with so few ICE patent applications as 2020. Both Hybrid and Electrical propulsion patent applications have increased and now stand at single digit multiples of where they were at the turn of the century. However ICE combustion still accounts for around two thirds of total vehicle propulsion patents.

Despite the environmental need to migrate away from ICE technology, the adoption curve of alternative propulsion technology such as hybrid, electric, hydrogen and biofuels means that continued ICE innovation is an essential lever in driving down greenhouse gas emissions. While the internal combustion engine has played a large part in taking us towards the climate precipice the world is approaching, further internal combustion engine innovation should remain a key component of the policy tool kit to meet and exceed greenhouse gas emissions targets. Sitting along side ICE innovation, suitable materials innovation is enabling the creation of lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Combined with reduced frequency of transportation and a gradual and sustained move to alternative propulsion technologies, automotive innovation has the potential to drive the industry and society towards a more sustainable future.

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