Each passing month breaks modern temperature records, citizens perish in 51 degrees Celsius heat in India, unseasonal fires rage in the Canadian tar sands, methane escapes from arctic permafrost, Earth approaches the 1.5 degrees Celsius Paris Accord “goal,” and hoping to stop at two degrees Celsius appears increasingly naive.
As we observe these trends, we feel an urgent desire for solutions to global warming. In response to consumer interest, automobile companies have finally adopted the electric vehicle (EV), led by Tesla Motors and founder Elon Musk, cult hero for technology-inspired optimism.
We don’t have another decade to squander on false promises, so we may reasonably ask: Will EVs slow carbon emissions, and by how much? The public may simply assume the best, but a genuine answer requires rigorous investigation, calculation, and analysis. Smart scientists observe the principle to “beware congenial conclusions.” Nature is not sentimental and will not reward us for good intentions.
As we investigate this analysis, we will find that genuine solutions exist, although they may not be the simple 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. Currently, 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 per cent of its lifetime emissions. Hybrids and 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 before it is purchased. This amounts to three to four years of typical driving and fossil fuel burning, the embodied carbon emissions in the electric vehicle.
The necessary calculation does not stop there. The electric car industry requires mining for nickel, bauxite, copper, rare earth metals, lithium, graphite, cobalt, polymers, adhesives, metallic coatings, paint, and lubricants. 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 per cent, 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 to 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 10 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, but how much? Electricity generation accounts for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Most electricity (67%) 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% of electricity. We can make this renewable portion grow, but we must remember that even 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% low-carbon renewables. Morten and Walnum acknowledge that “electricity from 100% hydro-electric sources… is not currently applicable”
In some regions — Norway and 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, 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 involved a privatization scheme, handing over wild public rivers to private corporations. These companies laid pipes through sensitive watersheds, destroyed fish habitat, strung power lines through pristine forests, and negotiated purchase guarantees from the province that undermined public hydroelectricity.
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 per cent per year, resource consumption, waste, and land use impacts are growing at about 3.5 per cent per year, doubling every 20 years. That growth swallows up most of our ecological progress. Over a generation, for example, we gain 30 per cent 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 per cent 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 1/20 of 1 per cent of that fleet, but even if we could change that to 75 per cent 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 high-consumption industrial lifestyles and trying to figure out how to make the necessary plunder “sustainable.” We need to start with understanding what Earth’s systems can supply, then fashion a human lifestyle that preserves those 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 8, 10, or 12 billion people may not.
The genuine transportation solutions include light-rail, electric public transport; bicycles, and walkable neighbourhoods.
Solutions to moving ourselves through our cities and countryside, without filling our atmosphere with carbon-dioxide, will involve a redesign of those cities and transportation in general. During the last century, in North America especially, and in some other regions, cities were designed around the automobile. This was not done for convenience, but to benefit the automobile and oil companies, who systematically acquired and destroyed public transportation in North America, including Canada.
Those who have lived in cities and countries with good public transportation know that cars are not necessary and not particularly convenient. Streetcars and trains offer significant social advantages. Instead of traffic jams and road rage, good public systems allow us to travel to and from work in comfort, with productive time. On a train, we can read, work, have conversations with friends, and even meet new friends. We can sit in the dining car on long commutes and have breakfast or coffee.
Walkable neighbourhoods also offer advantages: Walking is healthy, we can meet our neighbours, know the store owners, and have healthy local relationships with people. The shopping mall world, on the other hand undermines community.
For mid-range travel, nothing beats the bicycle, the most efficient travel machine ever invented. Bicycles are healthy, cheap, easy to repair, and have a low embodied energy cost. I’ve lived in the Netherlands, where bicycles and trains satisfy about 95 per cent of all travel needs, and no one wishes they had a car. Bicycles with electric auxiliary power have a higher embodied carbon cost, but can be useful, and are significantly better than cars.
We can have higher quality, less stressful lives without private automobiles. A genuinely sustainable culture might include a few electric vehicles for invalids and elders, but otherwise, our communities can be built for walking, biking, streetcars, and trains. These sensible forms of transport simultaneously build community, support personal health, and can save Earth from runaway global warming.