How much will electric vehicles slow carbon emissions?
Each passing month breaks modern temperature records, citizens perish in 51°C heat in India, unseasonal fires rage in the Canadian tar sands, methane escapes from arctic permafrost, Earth approaches the +1.5°C Paris Accord "goal," and hoping to stop at +2°C appears increasingly naive.
As we observe these trends, we feel an urgent desire for solutions to global warming unleashed by human CO2 emissions. Automobile companies have finally adopted the electric vehicle (EV), led by Tesla Motors and founder Elon Musk, cult hero for technology-inspired optimism.
As serious ecologists, we may reasonably ask: Will EVs slow carbon emissions, and by how much? A genuine answer requires rigorous investigation, calculation and analysis. The general public may be forgiven for avoiding any such analysis, but as ecologists, we are obliged to know what we're talking about. Good scientists observe the principle to "beware congenial conclusions."
As we investigate this analysis, we will find that genuine solutions exist, although they may not be the easy solutions we hope for.
To know if electric vehicles will save carbon emissions, and how significantly, we must first understand "embodied energy." Every product sold – a cup of coffee, solar panel or automobile – requires energy to produce and deliver. This embodied energy includes mining, shipping and processing raw materials, and assembly and shipping of the product. Most of this energy comes from hydrocarbon fuels. There are no copper mines, steel mills or container ships run on windmills or solar panels.
Typically, the embodied energy of any vehicle accounts for 20 to 40 percent of its lifetime emissions. Hybrids and electric vehicles tend toward the high end of this range because they are complex machines. Electric trains, per passenger-kilometer, carry significantly less embodied energy, and a steel frame bicycle, of course, carries orders of magnitude less.
A kilogram of steel produces about 15 kilograms of CO2 in the atmosphere. A kilogram of plastics, rubber, or copper produces three times the emissions, about 40 to 50 kilograms of CO2. An electric-powered Tesla Model S, at about 2240 kilograms of steel, plastics, metals and rubber, produces the CO2 equivalent of about 60,000 kilometers of driving a conventional vehicle – three to four years of typical driving and fossil fuel burning – before it is purchased. That represents the embodied energy and embodied carbon emissions.
The electric car industry requires mining for nickel, bauxite, copper, rare earth metals, lithium, graphite, cobalt, polymers, adhesives, metallic coatings, paint and lubricants. Mining runs on hydrocarbons; these materials carry a large embodied CO2 cost and leave a trail of pollution.
Tesla's current planned production will require some 30,000 tonnes of graphite per year for the batteries alone, requiring six new graphite mines somewhere on Earth. EVs need cobalt, and the leading supplier of cobalt is war-torn Congo, where the mining industry has a legacy of carbon emissions, pollution, habitat destruction and civil rights violations. Tesla's lithium demand for batteries will require 25,000 tonnes a year, increasing global lithium mining by 50 percent, using water resources and typically leaving behind toxic chlorine sludge.
Lithium mining and water fraud inspired the green-washing villain in the 2008 James Bond film, Quantum Of Solace, in which a Bolivian community's wells go dry. In Chile and Bolivia, this story is shockingly real. The Aymara Indigenous People blame lithium miners for confiscating land and polluting water with chlorine. Saul Villegas, head of the lithium division in Comibol, Bolivia insists, "The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia." Villegas is attempting to limit lithium mining at a pace that avoids ecological and social disruption, but electric vehicle and mining corporations are applying pressure. "The prize is clearly in Bolivia," observes Oji Baba, from Mitsubishi. "If we want to be a force in the next wave of automobiles and the batteries that power them, we must be here."
Chile faces similar pressure. "Like any mining process," said Guillen Mo Gonzalez, leader of a Chilean lithium delegation, "it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and pollutes the earth and the local wells. This isn't a green solution. It's not a solution at all."
At Stanford University, in 2010, physics student Eric Eason, determined that known lithium reserves, some ten billion kilograms, could supply the batteries for about four billion electric vehicles. However, not all of this reserve is recoverable, and current production is used for phones, computers, camcorders, cameras, satellites, construction, pharmaceuticals, ceramics and glass. Since the demand for lithium is growing in all sectors, including Tesla's plans for car batteries and household battery units, we might assume a quarter of the world reserve, a massive mining and processing project, could supply perhaps one billion electric vehicles. This could replace the global vehicle fleet, but only once. Eason concluded that converting the world's fleet to electric vehicles ".. seems like an unsustainable prospect." Of course, there may be options that don't use lithium, but every industrial approach that increases resource consumption faces limits and carries the costs of carbon emissions, pollution, land use and social impact.
These challenges do not imply that there are no solutions to global warming, only that we must be rigorous in finding solutions that preserve human dignity and ecological integrity.
The impact of electricity
We know that over its lifetime, an all-electric vehicle can save some hydrocarbon fuel. However, we must account for all the costs. Electricity generation accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most electricity (67 percent) is produced by coal and natural gas; 20 percent by nuclear, another carbon hog; while renewables – hydroelectric dams, wind and solar – account for about 13 percent of electricity. We can make this renewable portion grow, but we must remember that even so-called "renewable" technologies have social and land-use impacts, and they carry an embodied carbon cost from mining, steel production, cement, manufacturing, shipping and decommissioning.
According to the 2010 paper Energy Chain Analysis of Passenger Car by Morten Simonsen and Hans Jakob Walnum, at the Western Norway Research Institute, "there is no substantial mitigation offered by alternative fuels and drivetrains" with the exception of purely electric vehicles powered by electricity from 100 percent low-carbon renewables. Morten and Walnum acknowledge that "electricity from 100 percent hydro-electric sources… is not currently applicable."
In some regions – Norway and western Canada, for example – hydropower makes up a large share of electricity generation, and in those regions, purely electric vehicles, over their lifetime, can save carbon emissions. However, there is more to the calculation. The Morten-Walnum study does not account for land use changes, water flow disruption, habitat destruction and the social impacts from hydroelectric dams.
In British Columbia, Western Canada, where I live, we feel fortunate to have a plentiful supply of hydroelectric power, producing considerably less carbon emissions than coal-fired electric plants. However, we also experience the impact of dams on local rivers, salmon runs, agricultural land, wilderness and rural communities.
A decade ago, some environmental groups in western Canada supported "micro-hydro" plants on wild rivers, describing these projects as "green power" necessary to supply electricity to fuel the conversion to electric vehicles. However, the micro-hydro plants, promoted by corporate interests, involved a privatisation scheme, giving wild public rivers to private corporations. The companies ripped up rivers to lay pipes through sensitive watersheds, destroyed fish habitat, strung power lines through pristine forests and negotiated purchase guarantees from the province that undermined public hydroelectricity. Grassroots citizens and Indigenous nations fought to protect some of these rivers, often finding themselves pitted against well-meaning, well-funded, albeit under-researched, environmental groups.
Some of these projects were stopped by grassroots action, but today, in the northeast corner of British Columbia, the provincial and federal governments have proposed a large dam in the Peace River Valley, again selling this as "green energy." Indigenous communities live, hunt, fish and farm in this valley, where the 60 meter high dam would flood 100 kilometers of river, wildlife corridors, agricultural land, people's homes and old growth boreal forests that serve as carbon sinks.
With global population growing at about 1.1 percent per year, resource consumption, waste and land use impacts are growing at about 3.5 percent per year, doubling every 20 years. That growth swallows up most of our ecological progress. Over a generation, for example, we gain 30 percent efficiency in building energy use, but triple the floor space we need to heat, cool and light.
Since 1946, the world's vehicle fleet has grown by 4.2 percent per year, doubling every 16.5 years. At that rate, we'll be looking for steel, plastic and lithium for two billion vehicles by 2032 and for four billion vehicles by 2050. Electric vehicles now comprise one 20th of one percent of that fleet, but even if we could change that to 75 percent by 2050, we would deplete the world's lithium supply and still have a billion gasoline vehicles, the same number we have today.
So, what are the genuine solutions? We have been approaching "sustainability" backwards, starting with the high-consumption industrial lifestyles and trying to figure out how to make the necessary plunder "sustainable." We need to start with the answer and work back, look at what Earth's systems can supply, then fashion a human lifestyle that preserves Earth's productive ecosystems. Sailing boats, neighbourhood gardens, public transport and small scale animal husbandry may fit into that genuinely sustainable scenario, but electric cars and windmills for eight, ten, or 12 billion people do not.
A few years ago, Sandy Di Felice of Toyota Canada promoted the new, luxurious Priuses, saying proudly that "Customers who embrace the products don't want a radical change to their lifestyle." But a radical change in wealthy lifestyles is exactly what we need.
We will need to change our growth economics to an ecological economics. We will need to stabilise human population and support population decline over time (primarily through universal women's rights and available contraception).
Genuine transportation solutions should avoid individual vehicles and focus on light-rail, electric public transport, bicycles and walkable neighbourhoods.
Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International. The opinions here are his own.
Sources and links:
"There is no such thing as a truly green car": Green Car Reports
Tesla battery plans require 6 new graphite mines: mining.com
Energy Chain Analysis of Passenger Car: M. Simonsen, H. J. Walnum
"World Lithium Supply," Stanford, 2010: Eric Eason
In search of Lithium: Dan McDougall, 2009, Mail Online
Do hybrids save energy and carbon? http://gadgetopia.com/post/5191
Growth of vehicles, doubling every 16.5 years: (IPPC)
India: doubling in 10 years, 7% / yr. (Inst. of Mathematical Geography)
China: doubling in 5 years, 14% / yr. (Sustainable transport)
Electric cars, 1/20 of 1% of world fleet (electric cars report)
1.3 billion vehicles, 2015... expect 2 billion by 2035 (green car reports)
Bicycles and electric bikes, embodied energy: I bike Toronto
Electric battery recycling: Scientific American
Hydro dams and species extinctions: Science Daily
Ecological cost of hydro dams: Wilderness Committee