By Arnold Simanowitz of TTL

The Government has committed to prohibiting the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040 – although there’s serious motivation to bring this forward, with a March 2018 report from Vivid Economics on behalf of the WWF predicting that a 2030 phase out could result in the UK could becoming the dominant location of electric vehicle (EV) sales in Europe. Right now, Norway are the ones to beat. In 2018, a third of all new cars sold in that country were petrol-free.

And this is all good news in terms of cutting our carbon: the largest section of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions now come from transport, which contribute 26% of our total, according to the latest Government figures.

Electric vehicles today are not as green as you might think

The climate impact and negative environmental footprint of electric cars is often underestimated.

First, many electric car components have little or no end-of-life recycling value. This is especially true for the lithium-ion batteries. Second, only a small percentage of power grids providing electricity to charge one’s car are “green” in terms of incorporating mostly a mix of renewable energies. Third, natural resources such as nickel and cobalt generate high levels of air, soil and water pollution when being mined and smelted.

This means that alternative fuel cars create pollution and carbon emissions in other ways by shifting them to those countries where the production of relevant minerals, metals and rare earths are extracted. This local mineral extraction is mostly only made possible through high levels of traditional energy consumption (e.g. coal, etc.) and the use of toxic chemicals.

The scarcity of relevant natural resources: how real is it?

The most important factor that will make the transition from traditional to alternative fuel cars a success is down to the availability of natural resources that are essential for building electric cars. However, the global market growth in electric vehicles is expected to exacerbate the race for scarce natural resources at the expense of natural reserves, environmental standards and human rights.

Lithium is the metal most likely to be hit by a surge in production and a fall in price, especially if demand for electric cars does not match optimistic forecasts. Ironically, it could be a shortage of cobalt that delays the production of the lithium-ion batteries needed to power electric cars.

Despite their name, most lithium-ion batteries also require cobalt and graphite to do their job of retaining and discharging electricity, and while lithium and graphite are plentiful, it is cobalt that has manufacturers of battery-based products worried.

As things stand today there isn’t sufficient cobalt available to enable all existing motor vehicles to become electric. But the march to electric cars will not and must not cease. There is huge research taking place into battery technology and hopefully less harmful and scarce materials will be found.