ENVIRONMENT – Electric autos well-intended but pose other problems

Tesla recharging station in Merritt. (Image: Mel Rothenburger)

Research Associate
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.

Joseph Quesnel

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?

When we consider the source of electricity, the invasive nature of copper mining for batteries and components, and other factors, the jury is out

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 on 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 ( The Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP) is an independent Canadian public policy think tank. Founded in Winnipeg in 1997, the Frontier Centre received charitable status in 1999 and currently has offices in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

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About Mel Rothenburger (6477 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

6 Comments on ENVIRONMENT – Electric autos well-intended but pose other problems

  1. And further, Tesla itself despite the hype has burned through billions of dollars of investors money building brand-new factories and acquiring other businesses (to Mars in comfort is the next big idea out of the guru) but none of that money, interestingly enough, is gone into recycling solutions or TRULY minimizing environmental impacts. The full force of Capitalism including further environmental devastation is at play here and seemingly no “environmentalist” seem to notice. The hypocrisy is staggering…
    A bit less of everything, not changing brand may help the environment.

  2. Good op-piece. I especially like the sentence: “….many environmentally-motivated people are more interested in appearing virtuous or bragging about their new Prius or Tesla than doing their homework.”
    Automotive companies need to be involved (legislated perhaps) in recycling their own products and suppling their own energy requirements.

  3. You have made some valid points.Unfortunately you start to sound like an appologist for the fossil fuel industry.Try to remember that the copper used to produce electric vehicles can be nearly all recycled.So it is really only borrowed and not used up.The same is true of the minerals used in batteries.and that technology is improving all the time.It should be noted that as you say mineral mining must be done in such a way as to prevent negative environmental effects.We must also understand that nothing has a zero effect and then endevour to minimize them.The pebble mine is a perfect example of destructive impacts.But it could be a model for best practices mining if the negative impacts were properly addressed.(Money and cost not withstanding) There will be a reduced carbon footprint from open pit ,and other mines if electricity is used as the motive force for operations and not diesel fuel.
    Obviously the electricity for motive use must be generated in a sustainable manner .ie NOT MEGADAMS. The east coast has some of the greatest tidal forces on earth and they can produce staggering amounts of electricity if harnessed in a responsible way. Wind ,solar, small hydro,geothermal ,wave power and a whole raft of other sustainable sources are available .You just need a government that is willing to see this done.If 7 billion of us stop using hydrocarbons now the other effects will be meaningless.
    The carbon available in the coal mines and oil sources could and will eventually be used to produce carbon technologies that will eventually replace steel and many other damaging materials.There is a carbonless future awaiting .We just need the cajones to pursue it.
    It must be said that carbon is not the only “boogyman”

  4. Mel, I’m extremely disappointed to see that this article made the cut for publication. It’s a variation on the ‘we need to keep using fossil fuels’ theme, in support of Big Oil.

    I’m not going to bother pointing out the errors it contains…but the typical correct response to a fake news opinion like this would generally include:

    – An EV powered by 100% coal-generated electricity still has a smaller footprint than a fossil-fuel powered car. And as power gets cleaner, so does the EV. The ‘coal powered car’ notion has been properly refuted many times over.
    – The variation in copper and other materials between an EV and ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle are actually quite negligible, especially when life cycle is considered.
    – EV’s are tracking to complete many more miles before being scrapped than an equivalent ICE vehicle.
    – EV batteries will likely be repurposed into stationary storage. This is already occurring to some extent, and will become more common once the ‘supply’ of batteries increases. Likely some time though, because they are lasting longer than most expected.
    – The article is missing the usual obligatory photo of the open pit mine, with the standard claim that it’s a lithium mine. It’s actually a copper mine in South America.

    In this case, ‘Think Tank’ is really just an arm of Big Oil.

    Nothing to see here, people, move along…

  5. Why is this drivel being carried here? Frontier Institute again, with a right-wing agenda that apparently the Harper years of auditing politically active charities seems to have missed (how convenient). This article consists of a long series of opinions suggesting that people trying to do right by the planet are at best misguided and, more likely, just interested in appearing virtuous. Offensive, divisive, and presented without a single shred of evidence. I expect more from the Armchair Mayor. There are enough media outlets that cater to trashy sensationalism. I didn’t realize you wanted to be part of that club, Mel.

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