The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was hailed by activists as a great achievement to address climate change. It will require untold billions to remake the state’s electric grid and overhaul the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. It’ll also require overhauling the transportation sector — and that’s where things get dodgy.
Converting the state’s cars, trucks and buses from oil to electricity will require New York to gobble up huge portions of the world’s supply of materials like cobalt and neodymium, which will make the state’s auto fleet heavily reliant on a single supplier: China.
The CCPA requires New York to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050. Transportation accounts for about one-third of that output.
Slashing transportation emissions will require electrifying nearly all of New York’s 11.3 million motor vehicles. What would that mean? We can get an estimate by looking at a remarkable June 3 letter that was sent to the British government by professor Richard Herrington, the head of earth sciences at the Natural History Museum in London, and seven colleagues.
Herrington and his colleagues looked at the UK’s climate goals and the requirement that all its vehicles be converted to electricity by 2050. They found doing so would require two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Remember, that’s just for the UK!
New York’s automotive fleet is about a third the size of Britain’s. So if we use Herrington’s estimates, converting all of the Empire State’s vehicles to electricity will require roughly 60% of the world’s cobalt production, 30% of global neodymium, a quarter of global lithium and 15% of all copper production.
Who controls those commodities? The copper market is fairly well diversified. But China controls about half of global lithium production and about 85% of the world’s supply of cobalt, a critical ingredient in the batteries used in electric vehicles. China also mines about 70% of the world’s supply of “rare earths,” including neodymium, which is an essential ingredient in electric motors.
China’s dominance of the cobalt and rare-earth industries has allowed it to become a leader in electric vehicle manufacturing and deployment. And it doesn’t plan to cede that leadership role.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited a rare-earth processing plant, a move widely seen as a signal to the United States not to impose tariffs on China’s goods. In addition, the official People’s Daily newspaper warned: “Don’t underestimate China’s ability to strike back.”
Even if cobalt, neodymium and the other commodities needed to produce millions of electric vehicles were widely available — and not controlled by the Chinese government — mining and smelting the vast quantities of material needed to make those automobiles will itself require enormous amounts of energy, and therefore mean more carbon dioxide emissions.
Further, any significant switch from diesel fuel and gasoline will require vastly more electricity production from renewables, on top of the amount needed to replace the fossil fuels now being used to generate power for the grid.
There are numerous other problems. The law will result in big jumps in electric prices and require the construction of massive amounts of new renewable-energy capacity even as New Yorkers already pay some of the country’s highest electric rates.
But Herrington’s letter provides a stark illustration of the global supply-chain issues that will emerge if New York attempts large-scale electrification of transportation. In the conclusion to their letter, Herrington and his colleagues declared that “society needs to understand that there is a raw-material cost of going green.”
In other words, regardless of lawmakers’ good intentions, there’s still no such thing as a free lunch — in the energy sector or anywhere else.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
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