In The Guardian, a UK media source for climate alarm and favoring forced energy transformation, John Naughton recently penned an article, “I’m glad you’ve bought an electric vehicle. But your conscience isn’t clean (May 6, 2023). The subtitle: “First you’ve got to drive a long way before you overcome your EV’s embedded carbon debt. And then there’s the trouble with the minerals in its battery.”
Naughton begins with that feeling of virtue, or virtue signaling. “So you’ve finally taken the plunge and bought an electric vehicle (EV)? Me too.”
You’re basking in the warm glow that comes from doing one’s bit to save the planet, right? And now you know that smug feeling when you are stuck in a motorway tailback behind a hideous diesel SUV that’s pumping out particulates and noxious gases, but you’re sitting there in peace and quiet and emitting none of the above.
“Life’s good, n’est-ce pas?” … Nope. False virtue, the rest of the article explains. Naughton brings in the other factors, the hard-to-see, don’t-want-to-know reality of EVs, or what Amory Lovins called EEVs—emission elsewhere vehicles.
First of all, where did the electricity that charged that big battery of yours come from? If it came from renewable sources, then that’s definitely good for the planet. But in most countries, at least some of that electricity came from non-renewable sources, maybe even – shock, horror! – coal-burning generating stations.
Think China and India coal cars. Even Wyoming. He references a study that the carbon “break even” point is at 8,400 miles for an all-renewable car and 13,500 for the average U.S. driver. For all-coal? 78,800 miles! “Sobering, isn’t it,” Naughton adds.
Emphasizing the point: “Even if all the charging energy came from renewable sources, you’re still not in the clear.”
Your lovely new vehicle comes with a kind of embedded carbon debt. The factory that made it – the industrial plant that shaped and stamped and assembled all that steel and glass and plastic and rubber into a vehicle….
Then comes the minerals that make big, heavy batteries function.
The composition of a typical battery (by weight) looks like this: lithium 3.2%, cobalt 4.3%, manganese 5.5%; nickel 15.7%; aluminum 18.9%; other materials 52.5%.
Many of these materials have been mined, shipped around the world and put through complex chemical processing before being assembled into a battery. These processes all have carbon footprints, and quantifying them isn’t easy, but they’re certainly substantial.
The “human toll” of today’s EVs also mocks the cannon of “eco-justice”:
Take Nickel. About two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from Indonesia, which is building nine new smelters to take advantage of the boom in demand. Local communities are understandably fearful of the impact of extraction and processing on their environment.
some of the largest current reserves of which are in the salt flats of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. The metal is extracted by evaporating the basins’ salt water, which threatens the limited water supplies and displaces local communities.
“But worst of all is cobalt,” Naughton continues.
Which mostly comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the Washington Post 15% of that country’s mining operations are in the “informal” (unregulated) sector, which employs upwards of 200,000 people (including thousands of children, some as young as six) working in unregistered and badly ventilated mines.
Summed together, the EV experience “comes at a cost that we proud owners don’t pay.”
The Guardian has done its readers and the environmental movement a favor by speaking truth to political correctness. Kudos to John Naughton for some in-depth reporting of the eco-sins of EVs. But there are many more problems on the economic side, indicating that more resources are expended than are created (wasted) in the government-enabled enterprise. As my colleagues have highlighted in a new research paper The Economic and Strategic Importance of Domestic Mineral Production, there’s a significant challenge to retooling our energy system from one that uses hydrocarbons to one dependent on minerals and critical materials.
It does not pay to be pseudo-green.