UK scientists warn of resource costs in transitioning to net-zero emissions by 2050

By Michael Brenneis

The necessary transition away from burning fossil fuels for transportation could be quite resource intensive. So say leading UK scientists in a recent letter to the UK Committee on Climate Change, in response to their recommended target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The letter, authored by Richard Herrington and members of SoS MinErals, lays out the difficulty of producing enough raw materials, and energy, to fulfill the needs of this transition, using known technologies.

The metal resources needed to make all cars and vans electric by 2050, and all new cars and vans electric by 2035, will be considerable. According to the authors’ calculations, a one-to-one replacement of the 31.5 million internal combustion cars and vans currently on UK roads with electric vehicles (EVs)—assuming next-generation NMC 811 lithium batteries—would require 207,900 metric tons of cobalt, 264,600 metric tons of lithium carbonate, 7,200 metric tons of the rare-earth elements neodymium and dysprosium, and 2,362,500 metric tons of copper.

Extrapolating to the two billion cars anticipated to be on the road by 2050 calls for significantly increased production:

Based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70 percent, 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.

Many will find the environmental impact of ramping up mining to this extent to be unpalatable. For example, 60 percent of the cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining practices are reportedly unsustainable. Research is moving forward on cobalt-free solid state batteries, but for the time being cobalt is likely to remain indispensable. The supply of lithium appears to be adequate, if production is increased, and work continues to develop methods to recycle lithium to a pure enough state to be reused in batteries. Mining of rare-earth elements can produce toxic products and waste, which raises environmental concerns, but there are few concerns about the potential supply being inadequate.

The energy required to mine and process these materials, in addition to the energy required to keep vehicles charged, may also be a significant impediment. Based on current figures, the shift to electric vehicles “will demand a 20 percent increase in UK generated electricity” say the authors of this letter. Shifting to wind or solar power brings its own raw materials challenges. Power requirements could be more demanding if EVs end up increasing VMT, as some researchers predict.

Meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets within the next 30 years will be extremely difficult without also reducing consumption. The demand for energy and raw materials can be reduced by decreasing VMT and the number of cars on the road; by increasing the mode share of transit, cycling and walking; and by changing land use practices that force people to travel by car to reach jobs, services, and other amenities and opportunities.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.