The electric vehicle (EV) has become one of the great modern symbols of a world awakened to the profound challenges of non-sustainability and climate change. So much so that we can well imagine Deep Thought The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything today could plausibly be “EV”. But, as Douglas Adams would surely have asked, if electric vehicles are the answer, then what is the question?
Let’s imagine the “perfect” electric vehicle: solar powered, efficient, reliable and affordable. But it is sustainable? Electric vehicles powered by renewable energy can help reduce the carbon footprint of transport. However, the measure of sustainability is not just the carbon footprint, but the material footprint: the total amount of biomass, metal ores, construction minerals and fossil fuels that are consumed during the manufacture and consumption of a product. The approximate tonne weight of an electric vehicle is made up of materials such as metals (including rare earths), plastics, glass, and rubber. Therefore, a global increase in the demand for electric vehicles would lead to an increased demand for each of these materials.
Each phase of the every manufactured product Calls for environmental costs: habitat destruction, loss of biological diversity and pollution (including CO2 emissions) from raw material extraction, production / construction to disposal. Thus, the increasing global material footprint is fundamentally the reason for the double crisis of climate and ecology.
The global material footprint has grown in step with the exponentially growing world economy (GDP) since the industrial revolution. This is mainly due to the outrageous consumption of the super-rich in a socio-economic system based on growth without limits. Can we resolve this fundamental conflict between the pursuit of limitless growth and the resulting environmental degradation?
Technological innovations and increases in efficiency are often cited as ways of decoupling material consumption from economic growth. While technology undoubtedly plays a crucial role in the transition to a sustainable world, it is constrained by basic physical principles and pragmatic economic considerations.
There are plenty of examples. The engine efficiency of airplanes has hardly improved for decades because they have been working close to their theoretical peak efficiency for a long time. Likewise, the efficiency of photovoltaic cells is limited to around 35 percent due to the physical properties of the semiconductors they are made of; in practice, for economic and pragmatic reasons, few exceed 20 percent. The generation of electricity in large wind farms is a simple but absolutely unavoidable physical consequence of lag effects and is limited to around one watt per square meter. The huge exponential increase in computing power over the past five decades will end around 2025, as it is physically impossible to make the transistors on the computer chip, which are already about 5 percent the size of the coronavirus, much smaller.
Whether it is the principles of classical, quantum or solid-state physics or thermodynamics, each technological solution sets different but unstoppable limits. Basically, physical principles that have made incredible technological leaps possible in the last century also inevitably restrict them. One would think that extensive recycling of materials would offset the efficiency limits. Recycling is critical; However, while glass and metals can be recycled almost indefinitely without any loss of quality, materials like paper and plastic can only be recycled a few times before they degrade too much.
In addition, recycling itself can be an energy and material intensive process. Even if the laws of physics could (they cannot) be broken in order to recycle with 100 percent efficiency, the additional demand from the imperative for economic growth would inevitably require virgin materials. The key point is that efficiency is limited by physics, but there is no sufficient limit for the socio-economic construct “demand”.
Unfortunately, the situation is even worse. Economic growth must be exponential; that is, the size of the economy must double in a specified period of time. As mentioned earlier, this has resulted in a corresponding increase in the material footprint. To understand the nature of exponential growth, consider the EV. Let’s say we have enough (easily extractable) lithium for the batteries needed for the EV revolution for another 30 years. Let us now assume that deep-sea mining currently supplies four times the amount of these materials. Are we insured for 120 years? No, because the current 10 percent growth rate in lithium demand equates to a doubling of demand every seven years, which means we would only have enough for 44 years. Indeed, we would be causing immeasurable, perhaps irreversible, destruction of marine ecosystems to buy us a few extra years of raw materials.
Exponential growth quickly and inevitably inundates everything that is finally available. For a virus, that finite resource is human population and, in the context of the planet, it is its physical resources.
The inevitable conclusion is that it is essentially impossible to decouple material consumption from economic growth. And that’s exactly what happened. Wiedmann et al., 2015, carried out a careful survey of the material footprint for several nations, including that in international trade. In the study period 1990–2008, no country achieved a planned and conscious macroeconomic decoupling over a longer period of time. Claims to the contrary by the Global North hide the significant relocation of its production and the related ones ecological devastation, in the Global South.
Recent proposals for deep-sea ecocidal and fantastic exoplanetary mining are a not surprising consequence of a growth paradigm that refuses to acknowledge these inconvenient truths.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABILITY?
These observations lead us to a natural minimum condition for sustainability: all Resource usage curves are a must at the same time flat and all Pollution curves at the same time extinguished. It is this resource perspective that enables us to see why electric vehicles can help offset carbon emissions but remain completely unsustainable under the limitless growth paradigm.
THE REAL QUESTION
We have argued that the inseparable link between material consumption and GDP renders the paradigm of infinite growth incompatible with maintaining ecological integrity. However, while electric vehicles provide a partial answer to the climate issue, within the current paradigm they will only exacerbate the larger anthropogenic crises associated with unsustainable resource use.
The real question is: How do we move to alternative economic paradigms based on the reconciliation of just human well-being and ecological integrity?
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views of the views Author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.