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.

Embodied energy

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.

Mining lithium

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.”

A lithium mine, where the water is polluted with chlorine. Photo by Robin Hammond, Daily Mail, UK

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.

Genuine solutions

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.

Photo via Rovo Rail.

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.

Wikipedia creative commons photograph

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.

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Well ... What about population controls or maybe Elon Musk has it right ... an exit plan to Mars ?

I understand, and have substantial sympathy for, your opinion that cars have caused and continue to cause many social and environmental problems. That said, your article includes so many factually incorrect, or inadequately qualified, statements (a number of which would appear to have their origins in oil industry disinformation) as to completely undercut the credibility of its thesis. While I don't have time to address all of the errors in your article, the following responses, to excerpts from a similar article in the Toronto Star, addresses a number of therm:
• "Electric cars in any measurable number will make the environment worse, not better. True, there are no emissions at the tailpipe. But mining of the rare earths needed to make the batteries is devastating, and the recycling of millions of those batteries annually is a problem barely anyone has even thought about."
Response: There is no requirement for use of any rare earth metals to make EV batteries. Lithium Ion batteries, are not toxic and may be recycled. Tesla is setting up such recycling facility as part of its 100% renewable-energy powered Gigafactory in Nevada. Tesla does not use rare earth metals in either the battery or motor.
• "Speaking of rare earths, we've had a lot of fun with the name OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) over the past few decades."
Response: There are no requirements for any rare earth metals to make EV motors. For example, the leading EV, the Tesla Model S uses AC induction motors which require no permanent magnets and therefore no rare earth metals.
"Wait until they form OLEC (Organization of Lithium Exporting Countries — OK, I made that up, but mark my words). Lithium is the critical element used in most electric-car batteries."
Response: Lithium is not a rare metal, in fact the total lithium content of seawater is estimated to be 230 billion tonnes, and at 20 mg lithium per kg of Earth's crust, lithium is the 25th most abundant element.
• "If electrics are ever going to be a significant part of our fleet, we will need massive amounts of new electricity to recharge their batteries."
Response: This is completely false. Ontario’s net exports of electricity in 2015 would have powered 73% of all light vehicles in Ontario. The amount of electricity required to power all Ontario light vehicles would represent only about 15% of current electricity consumption in Ontario.
"Certain people's fantasies notwithstanding, this won't come from wind farms or solar panels on your roof. Nuclear is by far the most environmentally friendly option."
Response: This is also completely false (with respect to the use of solar or wind). On an annual basis, a 10 kW residential rooftop MicroFIT solar panel installation would provide sufficient electrical power in Southern Ontario to power four electric cars for the average mileage driven by Canadians.
• "The only long-term replacement for petroleum is hydrogen."
Response: While hydrogen has many viable applications, it would seem far less practical than electricity for automotive applications. The conversion of electricity into hydrogen, and back again, is at best, only 30% to 40% efficient (as opposed to 90% for electricity), it would cost billions of dollars and take years to build hydrogen distribution equipment.
"Solar-powered catalytic crackers convert sea water into hydrogen and oxygen; burn hydrogen and the “exhaust emission” is water. The perfect circle.
When we run out of water and sun, we're done, anyway. Or we're all living on Mars with Elon Musk.
Sure, it will cost billions to develop a hydrogen infrastructure. But it will cost billions to build an electric infrastructure that will support millions of electric cars too, and it is obviously doomed to be a short-term solution."
Response: This too is incorrect. The electrical grid is in place today and has more than enough overall capacity (distribution will need to be upgraded in some areas). Electric vehicles charge during off-peak hours and would represent an increased load equal to around 15% of existing consumption (which could likely be offset through conservation LED lightbulbs, etc.). For example approximately 19% of electrical power consumption goes to lighting. See: http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2011/highlights15 LED lights save about 90% relative to incandescent and reduce power used for air conditioning as well.
"Anything that is done in the interim to support that doomed outcome — like this ridiculous subsidy — is nothing but a waste of taxpayer dollars."
Response: There are many reasons to support the Ontario subsidies. Electric cars are clearly the direction of the future due to their greater efficiency, falling prices, lower operating costs, lower maintenance costs and other advantages. Ontario needs to more actively participate in this market. Ontario drivers spend about $900 million a month on gasoline and diesel, the vast majority of which could be save by driving electric cars. In addition, the harm caused by the GHG emissions (at $200 / Ton) is approximately $20,000 per gasoline vehicle over its 20 year lifespan.