The dirt under the hood of clean electric vehicles

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Electric car at charging station. Image credit: andreas160578/Pixabay

The global environmental movement has finally been heard on Wall Street, but is science keeping pace?

With the utopian rhetoric of "green" and "sustainable" energy now driving investment out of oil and gas, the reality of full-cycle economics is being left in the rear-view mirror.

As political leaders eye a transition to electric vehicles and car manufacturers jump on board, our capacities will be put to the test. 

"Net-zero emissions by 2050" is the current global UN target, and has become the political mantra of governments throughout the West.

At a press conference on November 19, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed Bill C-12 and his plan for achieving the UN target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Typically, the Trudeau plan was sketchy on details.

"Net-zero emissions by 2050. It's ambitious -- but it's possible, it's necessary, and it's exactly what we're going to do. Canadians have been very clear, they want climate action," the PM said.

Maybe… but what does the science say?

One of the leading strategies for emissions reduction is the forced obsolescence of the internal combustion engine -- which has been around since 1794, well before the automobile -- through a mass transition to electric vehicles. Automobile manufacturers are boarding the green bus to 2050.

Volkswagen, the world's largest automobile manufacturer, has committed to producing one million electric vehicles by 2023 -- and Tesla, with market capitalization of $89 billion in 2020, has become the most valuable U.S. car manufacturer of all time.

A new study published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) states:

"The long-term market outlook for Alberta's oil sector is bleak. By the end of this decade, a combination of market forces, international climate policies and geopolitics will push the sector beyond a tipping point and drive its long-term decline."

IISD is not alone in its apocalyptic vision of oil and gas.

In December 2020, energy news leader reported on "The Great Reset: BlackRock Is Fueling A $120 Trillion Transformation On Wall St.," saying:

"Big money is turning its back on companies that aren't conforming to one simple idea… sustainability -- and it is fuelling one of the biggest transfers of capital the world has ever seen. In fact, within a year, 77 per cent of institutional investors will stop buying into companies that aren't, in some way, sustainable."

Listening to Prime Minister Trudeau, it would be easy to believe that the Liberals have everything under control -- that we can simply sit back and pay the carbon tax toward a fossil-free future in just under 30 years.

While repeated soundbites from the prime minister's office may sell the inevitability of net-zero 2050 to an environmentally conscious electorate, the prevailing paradigm of sustainability through electric vehicles (EV) is actually fatally flawed.

For starters, the marketing of EVs as "clean" is misleading.

EVs create emissions, and other negative impacts.

A 2012 Yale University study titled "Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles" concluded:

"We find that EVs powered by the present European electricity mix offer a 10 to 24 per cent decrease in global warming potential (GWP) relative to conventional diesel or gasoline vehicles assuming lifetimes of 150,000 km. However, EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication (increase in concentration of minerals and nutrients, leading to algae blooms and dead zones), and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain."

One highly problematic aspect of electric vehicles, within the context of a fossil-free future, is the lithium-ion rechargeable battery technology that now quietly powers our hopeful journey toward the new green dawn.

This technology is predicated upon the availability of raw source materials such as cobalt, graphite, lithium, and manganese. These materials are rare, toxic, and mined in countries suffering from corruption and poor human rights records.

Michael Kelly, Emeritus Prince Philip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge, has written:

"If we replace all of the U.K. vehicle fleet with EVs, assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation batteries, we would need the following materials: about twice the annual global production of cobalt; three-quarters of the world's production of lithium carbonate; nearly the entire world production of neodymium; and more than half the world's production of copper in 2018. And this is just for the U.K. It is estimated that the manufacturing capacity for EV batteries would have to increase more than 500-fold if we want the whole world to be transported by electric vehicles."

Another problem with EVs is the carbon-dioxide emissions caused during production of the vehicle.

Production of an EV causes 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions, over twice the 14,000 pounds of conventional vehicles. Once on the road, EV emissions depend upon the power generation fuel used to recharge the batteries. If power generation is coal-fired, an EV will lead to 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide emissions per mile, compared to only 12 ounces for a gasoline-powered car.

In 2019, 37 per cent of the world's electricity came from coal-fired plants. Nova Scotia is well above the global average, at 64 per cent. Saskatchewan (49 per cent), Alberta (47 per cent), and New Brunswick (21 per cent) also rely heavily upon coal. A truly effective sustainable federal energy plan would therefore have to prohibit the sale of EVs in these provinces… until they convert their power generation profiles to greener sources.

There is also the lack of electrical generation capacity to recharge the fully converted 2050 global fleet.

Kelly writes:

"We are clearly going to need an extraordinary amount of electricity to convert all personal transport to batteries, even without considering the trucks and vans used in all the logistics that keep our supermarkets, high-streets, and industrial sites stocked. Where will all this new clean green electricity come from? Something of the order of 70 per cent of Britain's entire existing electricity-supply capacity will be needed if we are to remain a mobile society."

Net-zero emissions by 2050 is a pipe-dream within the constraints of current technologies and availability of raw materials -- perhaps the inevitable result of the global shift from analytical reasoning to emotive intuition. Net-zero 2050 may "feel" good -- but currently available real science says that it won't be happening without rapid technological developments and a major decrease in global mobility.

Perhaps the PM shouldn't sell his Mercedes-Benz 300 SL yet.

As Kelly has asked of net-zero 2050: "Where are the engineers?"

Ken Grafton is a writer living by the river in Aylmer, Quebec, just downwind from Parliament Hill; with global executive-level experience in engineering and telecommunications. He covers primarily politics and journalism, and is a regular contributor to the Hamilton Spectator, National Newswatch and numerous other news publications.

Image credit: andreas160578/Pixabay

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