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WaPo SHOCKER: Clean Energy Is Clean, Actually! (Yes, Including EVs)
Clip 'n' save for next dipshit who says EVs are dirtier than fossil fuels.
As the world finally starts the transition away from fossil fuels and sales of electric vehicles are really taking off, there’s been predictable pushback from the fossil fuel industry, not to mention outright disinformation about EVs, as well as valid concerns about the supply chain for the minerals that go into building EV batteries. Many of those minerals are sourced from poor countries where the labor conditions are often terrible, including child labor, and obviously nobody wants that. (Well, “nobody.”)
(The solution is to demand improved labor conditions, not to say, “OK, guess we’ll keep fossil fuels” — especially considering the human rights record of Big Oil in developing countries.)
And then there are the bullshit claims that because batteries require more rare metals than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, EVs are somehow “just as bad” for the environment as gasoline or diesel powered vehicles, or worse. On social media, such claims are generally illustrated with a photo of icky lithium leaching tanks in Chile, or a stock photo of a giant pit mine that turns out to be a gold mine somewhere. You want to save the planet but you support this, you monster? Oddly, these folks never reply when you show ‘em a panorama of oil production in Canada’s tar sands.
For the sake of lining up some facts, Washington Post climate columnist Michael Coren compares the supply chain for EV batteries to that for fossil fuels (WaPo gift link) and, to the surprise of nobody I’d hope, discovers that clean energy is cleaner:
I looked into the world’s evolving supply chains for the clean-energy economy. In every scenario, it turns out, the demand for battery minerals represents a tiny fraction of the amounts of fossil fuels now needed to power the world.
Update/correction: Like a boneheaded bonehead, I mis-copied the WaPo gift link. It’s been corrected throughout. Yr Wonkette regrets the error.
What’s In The Car (And The Wind Turbines, Etc.)
When it comes to the powertrain for EVs, it’s true that their battery packs require a fair amount of critical minerals, while the engine blocks of ICE vehicles are mostly iron or aluminum.
A typical 200-mile range EV lugs around a lithium-ion battery pack that’s nearly a third of the weight of the vehicle. Much of that weight is the battery pack’s casing, structural materials and a liquid electrolyte that ferries electrons around to charge and discharge the battery.
But roughly 353 pounds are crucial minerals or metals, including cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, aluminum and copper, estimates Transport and Environment, a nongovernmental organization campaigning for cleaner transport. Not counting steel and aluminum, says MIT, an EV requires six times more minerals than a conventional vehicle.
And yes, mining those minerals requires digging into the earth, and as a WaPo podcast series detailed (I don’t think it’s paywalled), the labor conditions can be terrible, and absolutely need to be addressed. That said, as Coren points out, those very real “environmental and social impacts,” when compared to business as usual in the fossil fuels industry, “are a drop in the barrel.”
We Dig For Things
As a f’rinstance, just the raw amount of “stuff we pull out of the ground” for clean energy and fossil fuels is vastly different. For all clean energy manufacturing, of “wind turbines, solar panels, EVs,” and the like, the world extracted 7 million tons of various minerals in 2020. Seven million tons is a lot!
At least until you compare it to the 15 billion tons extracted by coal, oil, and gas in 2019 — most of which got burned, adding still more CO2 to heat the atmosphere — part of the 33 billion tons of CO2 the world emitted in 2019 (obviously, it wasn’t all extracted or burned in the same year). And then they need to extract the same amount year after year to keep the fossil fuel economy fossil fueled. On t’other hand, Coren adds, “Clean-energy technology can use these materials for decades or, if recycled, in perpetuity.”
He provides a helpful graphic to compare the two. If you’re colorblind, you might miss the tiny green pixel representing clean-energy extraction.
But wait! the fossilheads may well exclaim, what about when you try to replace all fossil fuels with your supposedly “clean” energy? Then the green square will be just as huge, suck it libs!
It might sound like an impressive gotcha, at least until you remember that fossil fuels get all burned up while electric infrastructure stuff — not only EV batteries, but also wind turbines, geothermal pipes, solar panels, all of it — is pretty durable, and mostly recyclable. Just in terms of raw materials at the end of production, then, the green square would get bigger, but it would remain a tiny fraction of the big black one. According to the International Energy Agency, an all-in effort to keep global warming below 2 degrees C since preindustrial times would require about 28 million tons of various minerals a year — and that shit wouldn’t be going into the atmosphere to cause additional warming, either; and a lot of it would be recycled at the end of its use.
Coren acknowledges that the total of finished materials “isn’t a perfect gauge of environmental damage,” particularly when you consider that you have to mine a lot of rock to get to the minerals you need. He notes that a ton of copper requires mining about 100 tons of ore, for instance.
But even accounting for this, estimates Sam Calisch, a scientist at the nonprofit Rewiring America, mining minerals for the clean-energy economy amounts to extracting about five times less matter than what’s extracted by the fossil fuel industry. “This is still massive,” Calisch says.
(Fun digression: A big Canadian copper mine is already using giant electric dump trucks the size of houses, so even extraction can be much cleaner than it is today.)
Things To Make Us Go
The biggest difference between ICE vehicles and EVs is, of course, the amount of crap spewed into the atmosphere, which is the whole point of decarbonization in the first place. Even when you include emissions from manufacturing and mineral extraction, EVs come out on top, generating about half the lifetime emissions of ICE vehicles.
Yes, that’s even when EVs are charged by powerplants that burn coal or gas, because EVs are simply that much more efficient. With the current US energy mix, EVs on the road emit less than a third of the CO2 per mile of ICE vehicles. And obviously, when they’re charged by clean energy, like hydroelectric or home rooftop solar, the advantage grows even greater. As the US grid — also in need of upgrades! — decarbonizes, the EV advantage on carbon emissions will become even greater. Joe Biden’s benchmarks are to get US energy generation decarbonized by 2035, and for the nation to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
Let me just underline that one more time, because a good third of the WaPo comments seemed to be people asking “But what good are EVs when our power plants burn coal and?” The calculation that EVs emit a third of the carbon of ICE vehicles includes the US grid as it is today, and as the grid goes greener, so will EVs.
I’m sometimes astonished at the number of people who pretend that technology will never change, as if we won’t green the grid and build charging stations everywhere —yes, even for apartments — or that the current range of EV models will never expand to include small cheap EVs as well as the pricier models that make up much of current EV sales. It’s like claiming that cell phones will forever be the size of bricks and can only be used in cities where rich people can afford them. Harrumph.
Fossil Fuels Make Us Sick. Windmills *Don’t* Cause Cancer.
Finally, there’s the impacts on health and society from clean and dirty energy. Here, there’s virtually no comparison, even if you set aside the vast global impact of extreme weather events resulting from climate change (which of course you can’t).
Even the mundane nastiness of an economy that burns coal, oil, and methane gas is pretty horrific, so transitioning to clean energy will have huge benefits beyond merely keeping large parts of the planet habitable.
Air pollution, one of the world’s leading killers, will decrease as well. Fossil fuels are responsible for 4 million to 8 million excess deaths each year tied to air pollution, report studies in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science and Environmental Research.
The downsides of EV supply chains — the pollution from extracting minerals, and the human toll of mining practices in the developing world — are real, but unlike the health impacts of using fossil fuels, are generally not inherent to the materials themselves. Critical minerals can be mined with greater care, and with ethical labor practices that should absolutely be enforced through international agreements, not just slapping an “ethically sourced” sticker on the side of the finished battery.
The chemical composition of EV batteries is already changing as manufacturers find ways to make them without nickel or cobalt, using instead “metals such as manganese and iron that are safer, abundant, nontoxic and cheap.”
Manufacturers now use six times less cobalt in EV batteries, or have eliminated it entirely in recent years. Last year, half of the vehicles Tesla sold in the first quarter contained batteries with no cobalt or nickel.
Then of course there’s recycling, which is certain to increase simply because it’ll become cheaper than extracting more stuff, and because the minerals in EV batteries are too valuable to throw away.
And yes, a million times yes, it’s not simply a matter of replacing every ICE vehicle with an EV. That too is a red herring: we’ll need better housing policy, more walkable cities with public transit, the whole ball of decarbonized wax. EVs are part of the climate solution, not in any sense all of it.
But don’t worry: Even as we solve more and more challenges of the clean energy transition, the wingnut chorus will still be with us, perhaps complaining that ethically sourcing minerals is taking away jobs from children who used to work the mines.
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