When we consider the source of electricity, the invasive nature of copper mining for batteries and components, and other factors, the jury is out
By Joseph Quesnel
Frontier Centre for Public Policy
In the push to normalize electric vehicles, many forget it’s not the end of the road as far as environmental impact is concerned.
Presumably, those using electric vehicles or hybrids are motivated by a desire to improve the environment, especially by reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Many owners of these vehicles derive satisfaction and some could argue a sense of self-righteousness from using the vehicles.
However, it’s also important to look at the full life cycle of that type of transportation, including how it’s produced.
For example, owners of electric vehicles in Nova Scotia should be aware that electricity is generated in that province almost exclusively through fossil fuels, especially imported coal. Is using an electric vehicle the best way to reduce carbon emissions within that context?
Buying the so-called environmentally efficient vehicle is only the first part in the equation. A full analysis of cost benefits and tradeoffs is necessary. But it seems the unfortunate reality is that many environmentally-motivated people are more interested in appearing virtuous or bragging about their new Prius or Tesla than doing their homework.
The sad truth is that not looking at the full life cycle seems almost endemic to environmental causes, including those related to social justice causes. Take the local food or locavore movement. They adhere to the ‘food miles’ notion that shipping food long distances increases greenhouse gases but ignore the energy used in production, just as in the case of electric vehicles.
However, it has been found that efficient inter-modal container shipping often allow companies to grow things in better conditions overseas and, in fact, shipping them over long distance emits fewer emissions than growing food domestically.
Many credible studies have found that the carbon emission difference is quite negligible. There are much better ways to improve the carbon footprint caused by global agriculture.
Similar case studies can be made of so-called fair trade coffee or chocolate. Many westerners think they’re drinking pure justice when they down the latest certified fair trade coffee, when in fact they might be having a negative impact on economies in developing countries, including encouraging producers to switch to coffee when they should be focusing on crops their country is better at producing.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy has always focused on smart green policies that lead to demonstrably positive environmental impacts and steer clear of virtue-signalling policies that make you a hit at cocktail parties but a bad environmentalist.
Virtue signalling refers to the very public expression of moral values done to enhance standing within a social group. It’s chiefly done by middle-class individuals with liberal values on environmentalism.
Even environmentalists must face a dilemma in the production phase of electric vehicles. As technology improves, the demand for copper for these vehicles will also increase. The International Copper Association (ICA) says electric vehicles use a substantial amount of copper in their batteries and in the windings and copper rotors used in electric motors. A single car can have up to six kilometres of copper wiring.
We then need to consider the amount of energy – including electricity – used in the mining and production process. To accommodate this immense demand for copper, environmentalist groups need to reconsider their campaigns against open pit and strip mining, or face hypocrisy.
If the copper ore is only accessible by strip mining and you need an electrified transportation system to operate it, and that system uses trucks ranging in size from 180-to-400-tonne capacity on 12-hour shifts, are we really reducing our energy use and carbon footprint? Or are we just shifting this intense energy use to an unseen location?
Although mining has improved its environmental footprint over the last few decades, some impacts are unavoidable. For example, the proposed Pebble mine in southern Alaska is generating controversy because of its expected impact of local ecosystems (particularly on fish-bearing water bodies) and natural resources. Never mind the effects of waste rock and tailings ponds from inevitable abandoned mines.
In the end, individuals who want to help improve the environment by riding in electric or hybrid-electric vehicles might want to reconsider the environmental tradeoffs.
Joseph Quesnel is a research fellow with Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org).
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