Why Electric Cars Won't Save Us: There Are Not Enough Resources to Build Them

©. FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP/Getty Images/ separating cobalt from mud and rocks in DR Congo

British scientists do the math and find that we come up short for cobalt, lithium and copper.

TreeHugger previously covered the UK Committee on Climate Change report, and complained that that it was too much business as usual, particularly with its suggestion that electric cars could replace all the ICE (internal combustion engine) powered cars in the UK, and its lack of interest in alternatives.

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.

The worldwide impact: If this analysis is extrapolated to the currently projected estimate of two billion cars worldwide, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

It would also take a lot of energy to make these cars:

Energy costs for cobalt production are estimated at 7000-8000 kWh for every tonne of metal produced and for copper 9000 kWh/t. The rare-earth energy costs are at least 3350 kWh/t, so for the target of all 31.5 million cars that requires 22.5 TWh of power to produce the new metals for the UK fleet, amounting to 6% of the UK’s current annual electrical usage. Extrapolated to 2 billion cars worldwide, the energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output.

And then, of course, there is the electricity required to power all these electric vehicles. Building wind farms to generate that much would require more copper and more dysprosium, and building solar farms requires yet more high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium. Professor Herrington notes:

The urgent need to cut CO2 emissions to secure the future of our planet is clear, but there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but keep them charged.
Electric Bike in France

Seen in the south of France: e-bikes for mail delivery/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As I noted in an earlier post on copper, we have to stop talking about how electric cars will save us; it takes too much stuff to make them all, puts out too much upfront carbon, and nobody is going to make enough of them fast enough. All that copper and lithium and nickel and aluminum and steel has to come from somewhere. 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.

Again, this is why we go on about sufficiency all the time. What is the best tool for the job? Cars are convenient for some, but we can't just build electric powered two and three ton boxes moving one person a few miles. We have to look at alternatives that use less stuff more efficiently. Electric cars won't save us.