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Electric Cars Alone Not Enough to Save Us, Study Claims

Stones are rinsed and sorted near a Congo cobalt mine. More than 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the south-eastern provinces of DRC. Photograph: Siddharth Kara The Guardian

A team of scientists has written to the Committee of Climate Change warning that if the UK’s 31.5 million cars are replaced by electric vehicles by 2050, as is currently planned by the Government, this will require almost twice the current annual global supply of cobalt. Moreover, as we have already reported, a shortage of this battery material could be experienced by the early 2020s.

Now, a letter from the Natural History Museum’s head of Earth Sciences, Professor Richard Herrington, along with other experts, points out the scale of the problem of building so many electric cars. They calculate that, even with the most efficient batteries available, full electrification of the auto fleet by 2035 would need a lot more mining.

Lots of mining

The researchers have also calculated that based on the latest ‘811’ battery technology (80 per cent nickel, 10 per cent cobalt, 10 per cent manganese), UK demand for EV batteries will require almost the total amount of neodymium produced globally each year, three quarter’s of the world’s lithium, and “at least half” of the world’s copper. 


And they are not just nicely asking for resources.

Lots of energy

The future is electrifying, the Internation Energy Agency reports.

Electricity is the rising force among worldwide end-uses of energy, making up 40% of the rise in final consumption to 2040 – the same share of growth that oil took for the last twenty-five years.

With this global scenario, the earth scientists also estimate that the energy required to mine materials for EV batteries will take 22.5 TWh (TeraWatt-hours) of energy, equivalent to six per cent of the UK’s current annual electrical usage. Just mining the battery materials necessary to replace the two billion cars in the world would require four times the UK’s total annual electrical output.

So, what can we do?

Nothing will save us, but us. Maybe the world would come to an end while we are eating a burger waiting for some sci-fi tech miracle to come and save us. Maybe not.

But meanwhile, look around.

It is simple math, as long as we use more than we really need the system will collapse. We have to look at getting people out of cars, at making it easier for people to use e-bikes and cargo bikes, transit and feet. We have to look at alternatives that use less stuff more efficiently.

Electric cars won’t save us, we will.

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  1. Neodymium is actually for the permanent magnet engines, not the batteries.
    There are technologies other than the more efficient permanent magnets that could help during the transition, and also while we develop rare earth mining in other countries, instead of relying on just 3 countries or so for the world supply.
    There are also on-going efforts to produce cheap and efficient cobalt-free batteries, and lithium is one of the most abundant mineral on Earth.

    I am not sure what to make of these figures: Comparing EVs that are built once to 1 million miles specs (Tesla’s goal) and over several decades with the production of a few minerals for just one year does not help. Same with comparing world mining efforts with just the UK current electricity production.

    But these figures at least show the importance of better mining technologies. Currently, the extraction and refining of ores, especially rare earths, is extremely polluting and damaging to the environment and to the health of mine workers and local populations. We need to invest at a worldwide level to find better technologies than powerful acids or mercury or whatnots. This technology could also be applied to waste disposal, to extract separately each mineral from mixed alloys.

    You’re right that we also need to change our behavior. In cities for instance, car ownership is just too costly, too noisy, polluting or creates traffic and parking issues that makes everybody’s life less enjoyable and more risky. Sharing cars or better, renting them on demand would be a better and cheaper option. There also needs to be better infrastructure for public transportation, local schools, shopping deliveries, etc. There are many startups in these sectors, but it’s rather expensive and disorganized for now.
    There are also several irreconcilable issues, like one or two parents working far away from the house, so we might not get to a one-solution-for-all, but at least we’d be limiting the number of exceptions and reasons to own a car in town.


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