UK scientists warn raw material output must surge to match EV growth

The EU must introduce a tough sanctions regime covering corruption and human rights, argue Rachel Owens and Sarah Gardner. [Photo: Flickr/ Gwenn Dubourthoumieu]

British climate targets alone will require the current annual global production of cobalt to double by 2050, in order to satisfy electric vehicle growth demands. A large increase in other raw materials will also be needed, according to UK scientists.

In a letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) on Wednesday (5 June), a team of scientists suggests that the CCC’s proposed target of net-zero emissions by 2050 will need almost all cars and vans on British roads to be electric-battery powered.

The team, which supports that goal, outlined the raw material needs and challenges that will come hand-in-hand with such an ambitious target. Current battery production requires materials like cobalt, copper and nickel.

Professor Richard Herrington of the Natural History Museum said in a statement that “there are huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars but keep them charged”.

He and his colleagues calculated that switching all of the UK’s light vehicles to electric will require 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate and over 2,300,000 tonnes of copper.

That amount of cobalt is twice the current global output, while the required amount of lithium is 75% of production and accounts for at least half of the copper output.

The calculation does not include heavy or light goods vehicles.

“Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s,” Herrington adds.

EU’s Sefcovic: Real risk that ‘raw materials become the new oil’

Europeans have to be “very vigilant” that today’s dependency on imported oil and gas is not replaced by dependency on lithium, cobalt, copper and other raw materials that industries need for the green transition, Maroš Šefčovič told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

In terms of worldwide impact, the scientists estimate that cobalt production will have to increase nearly fourfold and copper will have to double, in order to satisfy the demand of 2 billion cars, the current projected total global fleet in 2050.

Last month, the CCC advised the UK government that it should sign up to a net-zero emissions target for 2050. That would mean the UK would reduce emissions to a level where forests, wetlands and new technologies would be capable of absorbing everything emitted.

The CCC concluded that “net-zero is feasible and cost-effective”, although UK finance minister Philip Hammond stoked controversy on Thursday (6 June), when he insisted that the target would cost £1 trillion and take funding away from schools, hospitals and the police.

Hammond later clarified that he believes pursuing a net-zero target “cannot be delayed” but insisted that “we have to understand what this level of commitment of capital to decarbonisation means for some of the other investment programmes”.

The chancellor’s latter comment comes after Prime Minister Theresa May’s office shot down his claims, insisting that the target would cost no more than the UK’s existing emissions-cutting plans.

Finland pledges carbon neutrality on eve of EU presidency

Finland’s new government said on Monday (4 June) the country will aim to cut its carbon emissions completely by 2035. The Nordic nation will take over the rotating EU presidency in July, with an ambitious pan-European climate deal still left on the negotiating table.

“The costs related to meeting this target are whole-of-the-economy costs, not a fiscal cost, and so it’s not really right to frame it as a trade-off for public spending,” a spokesperson said.

UK government sources say that May will try to enshrine the target in law next week. One of the frontrunners to replace the prime minister, who officially resigns today, Boris Johnson, also supports the 2050 target.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

Subscribe to our newsletters