Reality Check: Professor Pens Letter Explaining Natural Resource Drain Crated By “Net Zero Emission” Targets

While the idea of implementing net zero emissions by certain deadlines has sounded great for the companies, countries and states that have set targets, the reality of making it happen is slightly more difficult.

That’s what the U.K. is finding out after Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington penned a letter to the Committee on Climate Change on the vast amount of natural resources that will be necessary to make the conversion. The letter was delivered to Baroness Brown, who chairs the Adaption Sub-Committee of the Committee on Climate Change.

In addition to noting that the U.K. would need a 20% increase in UK-generated electricity, the release also notes that “to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.”

The letter reads:

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.

“Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.”

It then points out obvious challenges in meeting the needs of converting all cars and vans to electric vehicles, especially as it relates to cobalt:

To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.

The drain on resources would be felt globally, and not just in the U.K., the letter continues:

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.

Finally, it points out the rising energy cost of metal production (almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output) and additional challenges of using “green energy” to provide the electricity for EVs:

Energy cost of metal production: This choice of vehicle comes with an energy cost too.  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

Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

The letter makes it clear that there are several “inconvenient truths” associated with the reality of all of the “clean energy” virtue signaling that has been taking place. The letter follows last month when we published an article reporting that EVs may offer a negligible difference from ICE vehicles in CO2 emissions. It was the topic of a blog post by natural resource investors Goehring & Rozencwajg (G&R), a “fundamental research firm focused exclusively on contrarian natural resource investments with a team with over 30 years of dedicated resource experience.”

The firm, established in 2015, posted a blog entry entitled “Exploring Lithium-ion Electric Vehicles’ Carbon Footprint”, where they called into question a former ICE vs. EV comparison performed by the Wall Street Journal and, while citing work performed by Jefferies, argue that there could literally be “no reduction in CO2 output” in some EV vs. ICE comparisons. 

Their analysis “details the tremendous amount of energy (and by extension CO2) needed to manufacture a lithium-ion battery.” Because a typical EV is on average 50% heavier than a similar internal combustion engine, the analysis notes that the “embedded carbon” in an EV (i.e., when it rolls off the lot) is therefore 20–50% more than an internal combustion engine.