New Study Suggests Electric Vehicles May Be Fueling the Climate Crisis, Not Helping to Stop It

By: James Dorman | Published: Jul 11, 2024

We’ve long known that to combat the damaging effects of climate change, we will need to make some changes as a society. Addressing our motoring habits is a big part of this.

Adopting electric vehicles (EVs) has long been considered one of the best and easiest changes we can make to lessen our environmental impact. But new information suggests they might not be quite as environmentally friendly as we assumed.

The Environmental Benefits of EVs

The narrative around EVs is that widespread adoption of the vehicles will help to save the planet from the negative impact of climate change. To this end, some states are even planning to outlaw gas-powered cars in the future.

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Graphic on a grey concrete floor. A green square with a white illustration of a car with a power cord coming out of the back of it.

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EVs run on electric batteries as opposed to gasoline, meaning they have zero tailpipe emissions. If all motorists around the world switched to EVs, we would significantly reduce fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions.

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Significantly Reducing CO2 Emissions

Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 31% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) in the U.S. comes from gas or diesel-powered vehicles.

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White cloud/smoke spelling out “CO2” against a blue sky.

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So just from this data, in theory, a wholesale switch to EVs, which would totally eliminate these polluting vehicles from the roads, would reduce the nation’s CO2 emissions by 31% straight away.

EV Batteries May Not Be as Sustainable as We Thought

That statistic alone explains the support from environmentalists for EVs. Anyone who is in any way environmentally conscious has to look at numbers like that and consider an immediate switch to EVs.

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A white Hyundai car on an assembly line, with a large mechanical arm working on the assembly of the front of the car.

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However, data like this fails to take into account the infrastructure and material needs for EV construction. In particular, there is a worrying environmental impact from manufacturing EV batteries.

The Need for Copper

EV batteries require an almost unbelievable amount of copper wiring. For reference, take the Honda Accord, in which a normal Honda Accord requires about 40 pounds of copper. The corresponding battery electric Accord needs nearly 200 pounds of copper.

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Close-up of braided copper wire against a black background.

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We again have a fairly simple math problem here. If we were to make the transition from gas to electric vehicles that would reduce CO2 emissions by 31%, we would need almost five times the copper we do now for vehicle manufacturing.

Charging Stations

That only takes into account the copper required for EVs themselves. To support widespread EV adoption, a huge number of charging stations would need to be built around the world. These stations also require a significant amount of copper wiring to function.

Blue and black plastic devices in a vertical dock — electric charging station in a parking lot. Parked vehicles and other charging stations are out of focus in the background.

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To meet our needs, copper mining would need to start churning out quantities like we’ve never seen before. According to one study, should EV sales and charging station construction continue to grow as they have been, global copper demand could increase by between 3-5 million tons within the next decade alone.

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Need More Copper Than Ever Before

One study put the potential copper needs of EV adoption into harsh perspective: to support the electric revolution, we would need to mine 115% more copper than has previously been mined in human history.

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The same study notes that to make meeting this insane demand a reality, at least six new copper mines would need to be fully operational within the next decade. Unfortunately, opening a copper mine can take as long as 20 years.

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Copper Mining Cannot Keep Pace

Copper simply cannot be mined quickly enough to keep pace with the needs of sustainable energy. One of the study’s co-authors, Professor Adam Simon of the University of Michigan, explains: “The amount of copper needed is essentially impossible for mining companies to produce.”

A large, rocky landscape with a mix of brown, red, grey and copper coloring.

Source: Eric Guinther/Wikimedia Commons

University of Michigan researchers conducted a study on the current and projected levels of U.S. copper use. Their findings echo those of Professor Simon: “Copper cannot be mined quickly enough to keep up with current U.S. policy guidelines to transition the country’s electricity and vehicle infrastructure to renewable energy.”

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Copper Mining and the Environment

Even if we were to somehow find a way to expand mining operations to meet the exorbitant needs of the sustainable energy market, it would not be without problems. Copper mining is extremely dangerous.

A yellow background with a black triangle drawn on it; inside the triangle is an image of a skull and crossbones.

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Mining copper is far from an environmentally safe undertaking in and of itself, with a lot of negative environmental and ecological impacts.

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The Environmental Damage of Copper Mining

Copper mining presents three main environmental hazards: deforestation, land degradation and water pollution.

A cut tree stump is prominent in the foreground. Extending behind it is a flat, recently-cleared area of forest, not treeless. Bordering this cleared area are trees.

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The design of open-pit copper mines causes topsoil erosion and widespread degradation, which drastically decreases soil nutrients. Clearing the areas of forest necessary for new mines has well-documented environmental repercussions, and the waste from copper mines can contaminate groundwater, aquifers and irrigation systems.

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Other Risks of Copper Mining

Beyond the plethora of environmental dangers copper mining presents, it also poses a risk to human health.

A person lying on a bed with a blue blanket over them. Their arm is visible hanging out of the blanket, with a needle in their forearm with a tube leading away from it and a grey plastic device clipped to their thumb. A person in blue gloves and a sleeveless red shirt stands next to the bed.

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Copper mines release toxic and even radioactive chemicals. Once in the air, these chemicals can harm the skin, eyes and, perhaps most damaging, the lungs. Exposure can make breathing difficult, and an excess amount of copper pollutant in the air can even be fatal.

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EVs Are Not a Cut and Dry Environmental Savior

There’s no doubt that EVs have a tremendously beneficial impact in cutting CO2 emissions by reducing tailpipe emissions. But the conversation around their overall environmental benefit is clearly more nuanced than many might think.

Fairly heavy traffic driving away from the viewer along a highway towards a bridge framing a sunset.

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The copper issue is just one aspect of this, but it’s a significant one. To fully realize their positive environmental and sustainability potential, the manufacturing process of EVs needs to evolve to require far less copper.  

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