Electric Vehicle – A Dilemma Of Conscience

Commentary, Energy, Environment, Joseph Quesnel

In the push to normalize electric vehicles, many forget it is not the end of the road as far as the environmental impact is concerned. Much more homework needs to be done to assess the true impact of these vehicles.

Presumably, those using electric vehicles or even 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 that vehicle. However, it is also important to look at the full life cycle of that type of transportation, including how it is produced in the first place.

For example, owners of electric vehicles in Nova Scotia, Alberta and Saskatchewan 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?

Buying the so-called environmentally efficient vehicle is only the first part in the equation. A full cost-benefit analysis and look at trade-offs 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 some social justice causes.  Take the so-called 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 oftentimes allows 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 they might be having negative impact on local 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 signaling-oriented policies that make you a hit at cocktail parties during conversations but in fact a bad environmentalist.

Virtue signalling refers to the very public expression of moral values done primarily with the intent of enhancing standing within a social group. In this case, it is chiefly done by middle class individuals with liberal values on environmentalism.

On electric vehicles, even environmentalists must face a dilemma in the production phase. As electric vehicle technology improves, the demand for copper for these vehicles will also increase accordingly. The International Copper Association (ICA) said 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 kilometers of copper wiring. But, we then need to consider the amount of energy- including electricity – used in the mining and production process itself. 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 operates using trucks ranging in size from 180-ton to 400-ton capacity on a 12-hour shift including night shifts, are we really reducing our energy use and carbon footprint? Or, are we just shifting this intense amount of energy use to a location that is unseen?

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 of local ecosystems (particularly effects on fish-bearing water bodies) and natural resources.

There is already thought of the effects of waste rock and tailings ponds from inevitable abandoned mines.

So, in the end, individuals who want to help improve our always-improving environment by riding in electric or hybrid-electric vehicles, perhaps a real consideration of the environmental trade off  should be the topic of conversation at cocktail parties.