Lithium’s limits to growth

7 08 2017

The ecological challenges of Tesla’s Gigafactory and the Model 3

From the eclectic brain of Amos B. Batto

A long but well researched article on the limitations of the materials needed for a transition to EVs…..


Many electric car advocates are heralding the advent of Tesla’s enormous battery factory, known as the “Gigafactory,” and its new Model 3 electric sedan as great advances for the environment.  What they are overlooking are the large quantities of energy and resources that are consumed in lithium-ion battery manufacturing and how these quantities might increase in the future as the production of electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage ramps up.

Most of the credible life cycle assessment (LCA) studies for different lithium-ion chemistries find large large greenhouse gas emissions per kWh of battery. Here are the CO2-eq emissions per kWh with the battery chemistry listed in parentheses:
Hao et al. (2017): 110 kg (LFP), 104 kg (NMC), 97 kg (LMO)
Ellingsen et al. (2014): 170 kg (NMC)
Dunn et al. (2012): 40 kg (LMO)
Majeau-Bettez et al. (2011): 200 kg (NMC), 240 kg (LFP)
Ou et al (2010): 290 kg (NMC)
Zackrisson et al (2010): 440 kg (LFP)

Dunn et al. and Hao et al. are based on the GREET model developed by Argonne National Laboratory, which sums up the steps in the process and is based on the estimated energy consumption for each step. In contrast, Ellingsen et al. and Zackrisson et al. are based on the total energy consumption used by a working battery factory, which better captures all the energy in the processing steps, but the data is old and the battery factory was not very energy efficient, nor was it operating at full capacity. Battery manufacturing is getting more energy efficient over time and the energy density of the batteries is increasing by roughly 7% a year, so less materials are needed per kWh of battery. It is also worth noting that no LCA studies have been conducted on the NCA chemistry used by Tesla. NCA has very high emissions per kg due to the large amount of nickel in the cathode, but is very energy dense, so less total material is needed per kWh, so it is probably similar in emissions to NMC.

The big debate in the LCA studies of battery manufacturing is how much energy is consumed per kWh of battery in the battery factory. In terms of MJ per kWh of battery, Ellingsen et al. estimate 586 MJ, Zachrisson et al. estimate 451 MJ and Majeu-Bettez et al. estimate 371-473 MJ. However, the energy for the drying rooms and factory equipment is generally fixed, regardless of the throughput. Ellingsen et al (2014) found that the energy expended to manufacture a kWh of battery could vary as much as 4 times, depending on whether the factory is operating at full capacity or partial capacity. Since the Gigafactory will probably be operating a full capacity and energy efficiency is improving, let’s assume between 100 MJ and 150 MJ per kWh of battery in the Gigafactory (which converts to 28 – 42 kWh per kWh of battery). It is unlikely to be significantly less, because it is more energy efficient to burn natural gas for the drying rooms than use electric heaters, but the Gigafactory will have to use electric heaters to meet Musk’s goal of 100% renewable energy.

If producing 105 GWh of batteries per year at 100 – 150 MJ per kWh, plus another 45 GWh of packs with batteries from other factories at 25 MJ per kWh, the Gigafactory will consume between 3,229 and 4,688 GWh per year, which is between 8.3% and 12.0% of the total electrical generation in Nevada in 2016. I calculate that 285 MW of solar panels can be placed on the roof of the Gigafactory and they will only generate 600 GWh per year, assuming a yearly average of 7.16 kWh/m2/day of solar radiation, 85% (1.3 million m2) of the roof will be covered, 20% efficiency in the panels and a 10% system loss.

Solar panels in dusty locations such as Nevada loose roughly 25% of their output if they are not regularly cleaned. Although robots have been developed to clean panels with brushes, water will most likely be used to clean the Gigafactory’s panels. A study by Sandia National Laboratory found that photovoltaic energy plants in Nevada consume 0.0520 acre-feet of water per MW of nameplate capacity per year. The solar panels at the Gigafactory will probably have 25% less area per MW than the solar panels in the Sandia study, so we can guesstimate that the solar panels on the Gigafactory roof will consume 11.1 acre-feet or 13,700 cubic meters of water per year.

Solar panels can also be placed on the ground around the factory, and but consider the fact that the Gigafactory will only receive 4.23 kWh/m2/day in December, compared to 9.81 kWh/m2/day in July. With less than half the energy from the panels during the winter, the Gigafactory will need other sources of energy during the times when it is cloudy and the sun’s rays are more indirect. Even during the summer, the Gigafactory will probably have to use temporary battery storage to smooth out the solar output or get additional energy with electric utilities which use gas peaking, battery storage or buy energy from the regional grid to give the Gigafactory a stable supply of electricity.

The original mockup of the Gigafactory showed wind turbines on the hillsides around the plant, but wind energy will not work onsite, because the area has such low wind speed. A weather station in the Truckee River valley along I-80, near the Gigafactory, measures an average wind speed of 3.3 m/s at a height of 6 meters, although the wind speed is probably higher at the site of the Gigafactory. Between 4 to 5 m/s is the minimum wind speed to start generating any energy, and between 5 and 6 m/s is generally considered the minimum for wind turbines to be economically viable. It might be possible to erect viable wind turbines onsite with 150 m towers to capture better wind, but the high costs make it likely that Tesla will forgo that option.

The region has good geothermal energy at depths of 4000 to 6000 feet and this energy is not variable like solar and wind. However, there is a great deal of risk in geothermal exploration which costs $10 million to drill a test well. It is more likely that Tesla will try to buy geothermal energy from nearby producers, but geothermal energy in the region is already in heavy demand, due to the clean energy mandates from California, so it won’t be cheap.

Despite Musk’s rhetoric about producing 100% of the Gigafactory’s energy onsite from renewable sources, Tesla knows that it is highly unrealistic, which is why it negotiated to get $8 million in electricity rebates from the state of Nevada over an 8 year period. It is possible that the Gigafactory will buy hydroelectric energy from Washington or Oregon, but California already competes for that electricity. If Tesla wants a diversified supply of renewable energy to balance out the variability of its solar panels, it will probably have to provide guaranteed returns for third parties to build new geothermal plants or wind farms in the region.

I would guesstimate that between 2/3 of the electricity consumed by the Gigafactory will come from the standard Nevada grid, whereas 1/3 will be generated onsite or be bought from clean sources. In 2016, utility-scale electricity generation in Nevada was 72.8% natural gas, 5.5% coal, 4.5% hydroelectric, 0.9% wind, 5.7% PV solar, 0.6% concentrated solar, 9.8% geothermal, 0.14% biomass and 0.03% petroleum coke. If we use the grams of CO2-eq per kWh estimated by IPCC AR5 WGIII and Bruckner et al (2014), then natural gas emits 595 g, coal emits 1027 g, petroleum emits 880 g, hydroelectric emits 24 g, terrestrial wind emits 11 g, utility PV solar emits 48 g, residential PV solar emits 41 g, concentrated solar emits 27 g, geothermal emits 38 g and biomass emits 230 g. Based on those emission rates, grid electricity in Nevada emits 499 g CO2-eq per kWh. If 2/3 comes from the grid and 1/3 comes from rooftop PV solar or a similar clean source, then the electricity used in the Gigafactory will emit 346 g CO2 per kWh. If consuming between 3,229 and 4,688 GWh per year, the Gigafactory will emit between 1.12 and 1.62 megatonnes of CO2-eq per year, which represents between 3.1% and 4.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions that the state of Nevada produced in 2014 according to the World Resources Institute.

Aside from the GHG emissions from the Gigafactory, it is necessary to consider the greenhouse gas emissions from mining, refining and processing the materials used in the Gigafactory. The materials used in batteries consume a tremendous amount of energy and resources to produce. The various estimates of the energy to produce the materials in batteries and their greenhouse gas emissions shows the high impact that battery manufacturing has on the planet.


To get some idea of how much materials will be used in the NCA cells produced by the Gigafactory, I attempted to do a rough calculation of the weight of materials in 1 kWh of cells. Taking the weight breakdown of an NMC battery cell in Olofsson and Romare (2013), I used the same weight percentages for the cathode, electrolyte, anode and packaging, but scaled the energy density up from 233 kW per kg in the NCA cells in 2014 to 263 kW per kg, which is a 13% increase, since Telsa claims a 10% to 15% increase in energy density in the Gigafactory’s cells. Then, I estimated the weight of the components in the cathode, using 76% nickel, 14% cobalt, and 10% aluminum and some stochiometry to calculate the lithium and oxygen compared to the rest of the cathode materials. The 2170 cells produced by the Gigafactory will probably have different weight ratios between their components, and they will have more packaging materials than the pouch cells studied by Olofsson and Romare, but this provides a basic idea how much material will be consumed in the Tesla cells.


The estimates of the energy, the emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent, sulfur dioxide equivalent, phosphorous equivalent and human toxicity to produce the metals are taken from Nuss and Eckelman (2014), which are process-sum estimates based on the EcoInvent database. These are estimates to produce generic metals, not the highly purified metals used in batteries, and the process-sum methodology generally underestimates the emissions, so the estimates should be taken with a grain of salt but they do give some idea about the relative impact of the different components in battery cells since they use the same methodology in their calculations.

At this point we still don’t know how large the battery will be in the forthcoming Model 3, but it has been estimated to have a capacity of 55 kWh based on a range of 215 miles for the base model and a 20% reduction in the size of the car compared to the Model S. At that battery size, the cells in the Model 3 will contain 6.3 kg of lithium, 26.4 kg of nickel, 4.9 kg of cobalt, 27.9 kg of aluminum, 56.6 kg of copper and 21.0 kg of graphite.

Even more concerning is the total impact of the Gigafactory when it ramps up to its planned capacity of 150 GWh per year. Originally, the Gigafactory was scheduled to produce 35 GWh of lithium ion batteries by 2020, plus package an additional 15 GWh of cells produced in other factories. After Tesla received 325,000 preorders for the Model 3 within a week of being announced on March 31, 2016, the company ambitiously announced that it would triple its planned battery production and be able to produce 500,000 cars a year by 2018–two years earlier than initially planned. Now Elon Musk is talking about building 2 to 4 additional Gigafactories and one is rumored to have signed a deal to build one of them in Shanghai.

If the components for 1 kWh of Gigafactory batteries is correct and the Nevada plant manages to produce as much as Musk predicts, then the Gigafactory and the cells it packages from other battery factories will consume 17,119 tonnes of lithium, 71,860 tonnes of nickel, 13,292 tonnes of cobalt, 154,468 tonnes of copper and 75,961 tonnes of aluminum. All of these metals except aluminum have limited global reserves, and North America doesn’t have enough production capacity to hope to supply all the demand of the Gigafactory, except in the case of aluminum and possibly copper.


When the Gigafactory was originally announced, Telsa made statements about sourcing the battery materials from North America which would both reduce its costs and lower the environmental impact of its batteries. These claims should be treated with skepticism. The Gigafactory will reduce the transportation emissions in battery manufacturing, since it will be shipping directly from the refineries and processors, but the transportation emissions will still be very high because North America simply doesn’t produce enough of the metals needed by the Gigafactory. If the Gigafactory manufacturers 150 GWh of batteries per year, then it will consume almost 200 times more lithium than North America produced in 2013. In addition, it will also consume 166% of the cobalt, 133% of the natural graphite, 25.7% of the nickel, and 5.6% of the copper produced by North American mines in 2016. Presumably synthetic graphite will be used instead of natural graphite because it has a higher purity level of carbon and more uniform spheroid flakes which allow for the easier flow of electrons in the cathode, but most synthetic graphite comes from Asia. Only in the case of aluminum does it seem likely that the metal will come entirely from North America, since Gigafactory will consume 1.9% of North American mine production and the US has excess aluminum refining capacity and no shortage of bauxite. Even when considering that roughly 45 GWh of the battery cells will come from external battery factories which are presumably located in Asia, the Gigafactory will overwhelm the lithium and cobalt markets in North America, and strain the local supplies of nickel and copper.


Shipping from overseas contributes to greenhouse gases, but shipping over water is very energy efficient. The Gigafactory is located at a nexus of railroad lines, so it can efficiently ship the battery materials coming from Asia through the port of Oakland. The bigger problem is that most ships on international waters use dirty bunker fuels that contain 2.7% sulfur on average, so they release large quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that cause acid rain and respiratory diseases.

A larger concern than the emissions from shipping is the fact that the production of most of these battery materials is an energy intensive process that consumes between 100 and 200 mejajoules per kg. The aluminum, copper, nickel and cobalt produced by North America is likely to come from places powered by hydroelectric dams in Canada and natural gas in the US, so they are comparatively cleaner.  Most of the metal refining and graphite production in Asia and Australia, however, is done by burning coal. Most of the places that produce battery materials either lack strong pollution controls, as is the case in Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia, Philippines or New Caledonia, or they use dirty sources of energy, as is the case in China, India, Australia, the DRC, Zambia, Brazil and Madagascar.


Most of the world’s lithium traditionally came from pumping lithium rich subsurface water out of the salt flats of Tibet, northeast Chile, northwest Argentina and Nevada, but the places with concentrated lithium brines are rapidly being exhausted. The US Geological Survey estimates that China’s annual production of lithium which mostly comes from salt flats in Tibet has fallen from 4500 tonnes in 2012 to just 2000 tonnes in 2016. Silver Peak, Nevada, which is the only place in North America where lithium is currently extracted, may be experiencing similar production problems due to the exhaustion of its lithium, but its annual production numbers are confidential.

Since 1966 when brine extraction began in Silver Peak, the concentration of lithium in the water has fallen from 360 to 230 ppm (parts per million), and it is probably around 200 ppm today. At that concentration of lithium, 14,300 liters of water need to be extracted to produce 1 kg of battery-grade lithium metal. This subsurface water is critical in a state that only receives an average of 9 inches of rain per year. Parts of Nevada are already suffering from water rationing, so a massive expansion of lithium extraction is an added stress, but the biggest risk is that brine operations may contaminate the ground water. 30% of Nevada’s water is pumped from underground aquifers, so protecting this resource is vitally important. Lithium-rich water is passed through a series of 4 or 5 evaporation pools over a series of 12 to 18 months, where it is converted to lithium chloride, which is toxic to plants and aquatic life and can contaminate the ground water. Adams-Kszos and Stewart (2003) measured the effect of lithium chloride contamination in aquatic species 150 miles away from brine operations in Nevada.

As the lithium concentrations fall in the water, more energy is expended in pumping water and evaporating it to concentrate the lithium for processing. Argonne National Laboratory estimates that it takes 3 times as much energy to extract a tonne of lithium in Silver Peak, Nevada as in the Atacama Salt Flats of Chile, where the lithium is 7 times more concentrated.  Most of the lithium in Chile and Argentina is produced with electricity from diesel generators, but in China and Australia it comes from burning coal, which is even worse.

For every kg of battery-grade lithium, 4.4 kg of slaked lime is consumed to remove magnesium and calcium from the brine in Silver Peak. The process of producing this lime from limestone releases 0.713 kg of COfor every kg of lime. In addition, 5 kg of soda ash (Na2CO3) is added for each kilo of battery-grade lithium to precipitate it as lithium carbonate. Production of soda ash is also an energy intensive process which produces greenhouse gases.

Although lithium is an abundant element and can be found in ocean water and salty lakes, there are only 4 places on the planet where it is concentrated enough without contaminants to be economically extracted from the water and the few places with concentrated lithium water are rapidly being exploited. In 2008, Meridian International estimated that 2 decades of mining had extracted 20% of the lithium from the epicenter of the Atacama Salt Flats where lithium concentrations are above 3000 ppm. According to Meridian’s calculations, the world only had 4 million tonnes of high-concentration lithium brine reserves remaining in 2008.

As the best concentrations of lithium brine are being exhausted, extraction is increasingly moving to mining pegmatites, such as spodumene. North Carolina, Russia and Canada shut down their pegmatite operations because they couldn’t compete with the cheap cost of lithium from the salt flats of Chile and Argentine, but Australia and Zimbabwe have dramatically increased their production of lithium from pegmatites in recent years. Between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of global lithium from pegmatites increased from 39% to 44%.


In 2016, Australia produced 40.9% of the global lithium supply by processing spodumene, which is an extremely energy-intensive process. It takes 125 MJ of energy to extract a kilo of lithium from Chile’s salt flats, whereas 850 MJ is consumed to extract the same amount of lithium from spodumene in Australia. The spodumene is crushed, so it can be passed through a flotation beneficiation process to produce a concentrate. That concentrate is then heated to 1100ºC to change the crystal structure of the mineral. Then, the spodumene is ground and mixed with sulfuric acid and heated to 250ºC to form lithium sulfate. Water is added to dissolve the lithium sulfate and it is filtered before adding soda ash which causes it to precipitate as lithium carbonate. As lithium extraction increasingly moves to pegmatites and salt flats with lower lithium concentrations, the energy consumption will dramatically increase to produce lithium in the future.

Likewise, the energy to extract nickel and cobalt will also increase in future. The nickel and cobalt from Canada and the copper from the United States, generally comes from sulfide ores, which require much less energy to refine, but these sulfide reserves are limited. The majority of nickel and cobalt, and a sizable proportion of the copper used by the Gigafactory will likely come from places which present ethical challenges. Nickel from sulfide ores generally consumes less than 100 MJ of energy per kg, whereas nickel produced from laterite ores consumes between 252 and 572 MJ per kg. All the sulfide sources emit less than 10 kg of CO2 per kg of nickel, whereas the greenhouse gas emissions from laterite sources range from 25 to 46 kg  CO2 per kg of nickel. It is generally better to acquire metals from sulfide ores, since they emit fewer greenhouse gases and they generally come from deeper in the ground, whereas laterite ores generally are produced by open pit and strip mining which causes greater disruption of the local ecology. Between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of global primary production of nickel from laterite ores increase from 40% to 60% and that percentage will continue to grow in the future, since 72% of global nickel “resources” are laterites according to the US Geological Survey.


Cobalt is a byproduct of copper or nickel mining. The majority of the sulfide ores containing copper/cobalt are located in places like Norilsk, Russia, Zambia and the Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there are no pollution controls to capture the large amounts of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals released by smelting. The refineries in Norilsk, Russia, which produce 11% of the world’s nickel and 5% of its cobalt, are so polluting, that nothing grows within a 20 kilometer radius of the refineries and it is reported that Norilsk has the highest rates of lung cancer in the world.

The Democratic Republic of Congo currently produces 54% of the world’s cobalt and 5% of its copper. Buying cobalt from the DRC helps fuel a civil war in the Katanga Province where the use of children soldiers and systematic rape are commonplace. Zambia, which is located right over the border from Katanga Province, produces 4% of the world’s cobalt and copper and it also has very lax pollution controls for metal refining.

Most of the cobalt and nickel produced by the DRC and Zambia is shipped to China for refining by burning coal. China has cracked down on sulfur dioxide and heavy metal emissions in recent years, and now the DRC is attempting to do more of the refining within its own borders. The problem is that the DRC produces most of its energy from hydroelectric dams in tropical rainforests, which is the dirtiest energy on the planet. According to the IPCC (AR5 WGIII 2014), hydroelectric dams typically emit a medium of 24 g of  CO2-eq per kWh, but tropical dams accumulate large amounts of vegetation which collect at the bottom of the dam where bacteria feeding on the decaying matter release methane (CH4) in the absence of oxygen. There have been no measurements of the methane released by dams in the DRC, but studies of 3 Amazonian hydroelectric dams found that they emit an average of 2556 g CO2-eq per kWh. Presumably the CO2 from these dams would have been emitted regardless of whether the vegetation falls on the forest floor or in a dam, but rainforest dams are unique environments without oxygen that produces methane. If we only count the methane emissions, then Amazonian hydroelectric dams emit an average of 2044 g CO2-eq per kWh. Any refining of copper/cobalt in the DRC and Zambia or nickel/cobalt in Brazil will likely use this type of energy which emits twice as much greenhouse gases as coal.

To avoid the ethical problems with obtaining nickel and cobalt from Russia and cobalt and copper from the DRC and Zambia, the Gigafactory will have to consume metals from laterite ores in places like Cuba, New Caledonia, Philippines, Indonesia and Madagascar, which dramatically increases the greenhouse gas emissions of these metals. The nickel/cobalt ore from Moa, Cuba is shipped to Sherritts’ refineries in Canada, so presumably it will be produced with pollution controls in Cuba and Canada and relatively clean sources of energy. In contrast, the nickel/cobalt mining in the Philippines and New Caledonia has generated protracted protests by the local population who are effected by the contamination of their water, soil and air. When Vale’s $6 billion high pressure acid leaching plant in Goro, New Caledonia leaked 100,000 liters of acid-tainted effluent leaked into a local river in May 2014, protesters frustrated by the unaccountability of the mining giant burned a third of its trucks and one of its buildings, causing between $20 and $30 million in damages. The mining companies extracting nickel and cobalt in the Philippines have shown so little regard for the health of the local people, that the public outcry induced the Duterte administration to recently announce that it will prohibit all open pit mining of nickel. If this pronouncement is enforced, the operations of 28 of the 41 companies mining nickel/cobalt in the country will be shut down and the global supply of nickel will be reduced between 8% and 10%.

Most refining of laterite ores in the world is done with dirty energy, which is problematic because these ores require so much more energy than sulfide ores. Much of the copper/cobalt from the DRC and Zambia and the nickel/cobalt from the Philippines is shipped to China where it is refined with coal. The largest nickel/cobalt laterite mine and refinery in the world is the Ambatovy Project in Madagascar. Although the majority of the electricity on the island comes from hydroelectric dams, the supply is so limited that Ambatovy constructed three 30 MW coal-powered generators, plus 30 MW diesel powered generators.

It is highly likely that many of the LCA studies of lithium-ion batteries have underestimated the energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce their metals, because they assume that the lithium comes from brine operations and the copper, nickel and cobalt come from sulfide ores with high metal concentrations. As lithium extraction increasingly shifts to spodumene mining and nickel and cobalt mining shifts to laterite ores, the greenhouse gas emissions to produce these metals will dramatically increase.

As the global production of lithium-ion batteries ramps up, the most concentrated ores for these metals will become exhausted, so that mining will move to less-concentrated sources, which require more energy and resources in the extraction and processing.  In 1910, copper ore in the US contained 1.9% copper. By 1950, this percentage had fallen to 0.9% copper, and by 1980 it was at 0.5% copper. As the concentration of copper in the ore has fallen, the environmental impact of extraction has risen. In a study of the smelting and refining of copper and nickel, Norgate and Rankin (2000) found that the energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and sulfur dioxide emissions per kg of metal rose gradually when changing from ore with 3% or 2% metal to 1% metal, but below 1% the environmental impacts increased dramatically. MJ/kg, CO2/kg and SO2/kg doubled when moving from ore with 1% metal to ore with 0.5% metal, and they doubled again when moving to 0.25% metal. Producing a kilo of copper today in the US has double the environmental impact of a kg of copper half a century ago and it will probably have 4 times the impact in the future.

The enormous demand for metals by battery manufacturers will force the mining companies to switch to less and less concentrated ores and consume more energy in their extraction. If the Nevada Gigafactory produces 150 GWh of batteries per year, then it will dramatically reduce the current global reserves listed by the US Geological survey. The Nevada Gigafatory will cut the current global lithium reserves from 400 to 270 years, assuming that current global consumption in other sectors does not change (which is highly unlikely). If the Gigafactory consumes metals whose recycled content is the US average recycling rate, then the current global copper reserves will be reduced from 37.1 to 36.9 years, the nickel reserves from 34.7 to 33.9 years, and the cobalt reserves from 56.9 to 52.5 years.

Recycling at the Gigafactory will not dramatically reduce its demand for metals. If we assume that 80% of the metal consumed by the Gigafactory will come from recycled content starting in 15 years when batteries start to be returned for recycling, then current global reserves will be extended 0.04 years for copper, 0.09 years for nickel, 0.9 years for cobalt. Only in the case of lithium will recycling make a dramatic difference, extending the current reserves 82 years for lithium.

The prospects for global shortages of these metals will become even more dire if the 95.0 million vehicles that the world produced in 2016 were all long-range electrics as Elon Musk advocates for “sustainable transport.” If the average vehicle (including all trucks and buses) has a 50 kWh battery, then the world would need to produce 4750 GWh of batteries per year just for electric vehicles. With energy storage for the electrical grid, that total will probably double, so 64 Gigafactories will be needed. Even that might not enough. In Leonardo de Caprio’s documentary Before the Flood, Elon Musk states, “We actually did the calculations to figure out what it would take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy… and you’d need 100 Gigafactories.”

Lithium-ion batteries will get more energy dense in the future, but they are unlikely to reach the high energy density of the NCA cells produced in the Gigafactory, if using the LMO or LFP chemistries. For that kind of energy density, they will probably need either an NCA or an altered NMC chemistry which is 70%-80% nickel, so the proportion of lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper in most future EV batteries is likely to be similar to the Gigafactory’s NCA cells. If 4750 GWh of these batteries are produced every year at an energy density of 263 Wh/kg, then the current global reserves will be used up in 24.5 years for lithium, 31.2 years for copper, 20.2 years for nickel, and 15.4 years for cobalt. Even if those batteries are produced with 80% recycled metals, starting in 15 years time, the current global lithium reserves would be extended 6.6 years, or 7.4 years if all sectors switch to using 80% recycled lithium. Using 80% recycled metal in the batteries would extend current copper, nickel and cobalt reserves by 0.7, 0.5 and 0.1 years, respectively. An 80% recycling rate in all sectors would make a difference for copper, extending its reserves by 11.5 years, but only 2.8 years for nickel and 0.2 years for cobalt. In other words, recycling will not significantly reduce the enormous stresses that lithium-ion batteries will place on global metal supplies, because they represent so much new demand for metals.

As the demand for these metals increases, the prices will increase and new sources of these metals will be found, but they will either be in places like the DRC with ethical challenges or in places with lower quality ores which require more energy and resources to extract and refine. We can expect more energy-intensive mining of spodumene and  more strip mining of laterite ores which cause more ecological disruption. The ocean floor has enormous quantities of manganese, nickel, copper and cobalt, but the energy and resources to scrap the bottom of the ocean will dramatically increase the economic and ecological costs. If battery manufacturing dramatically raises the prices of lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper (and manganese for NMC cells), then it will be doubly difficult to transition to a sustainable civilization in other areas. For example, nickel and cobalt are essential to making carbide blades, tool dies and high-temperature turbine blades and copper is a vital for wiring, electronics and electrical motors. It is hard to imagine how the whole world will transition to a low-carbon economy if these metals are made prohibitively expensive by manufacturing over a billion lithium-ion batteries for EVs.

Future batteries will probably be able to halve their weight by switching to a solid electrolyte and using an anode made of lithium metal, lithiated silicon or carbon nanotubes (graphene), but that will only eliminate the copper, while doing little to reduce the demand for the other metals. Switching the anode to spongy silicon or graphene will allow batteries to hold more charge per kilogram, but those materials also dramatically increase the cost and the energy and resources that are consumed in battery manufacturing.

In the near future, lithium-ion batteries are likely to continue to follow their historical trend of using 7% less materials each year to hold the same amount of charge. That rate of improvement, however, is unlikely to last. An NCA cathode currently holds a maximum of 200 mAh of energy per gram, but its theoretical maximum is 279 mAh/g. It has already achieved 72% of what is theoretically possible, so there is little scope to keep improving. NMC at 170 mAh/g is currently farther from its theoretical limit of 280 mAh/g, but the rate of improvement is likely to slow as these battery chemistries bump against their theoretical limits.

Clearly the planet doesn’t have the resources to build 95 million long-range electric vehicles each year that run on lithium-ion batteries. Possibly a new type of battery will be invented that only uses common materials, such as aluminum, zinc, sodium and sulfur, but all the batteries that have been conceived with these sorts of material still have significant drawbacks. Maybe a new type of battery will be invented that is suitable for vehicles or the membranes in fuel cells will become cheap enough to make hydrogen a viable competitor, but at this point, lithium-ion batteries appear likely to dominate electric vehicles for the foreseeable future. The only way EVs based on lithium-ion can become a sustainable solution for transport is if the world learns to live with far fewer vehicles.

Currently 3% more vehicles are being built each year, and there is huge demand for vehicles in the developing world. While demand for cars has plateaued in the developed world, vehicle manufacturing since 1999 has grown 17.4% and 10.5% per year in China and India, respectively. If the developing world follows the unsustainable model of vehicle ownership found in the developed world, then the transition to electrified transport will cause severe metal shortages. Based on current trends, Navigant Research predicts that 129.9 million vehicles will be built in the year 2035, when there will be 2 billion vehicles on the road.


On the other hand, James Arbib and Tony Seba believe that autonomous vehicles and Transport as a Service (TaaS) such as Uber and Lyft will dramatically reduce demand for vehicles, lowering the number of passenger vehicles on American roads from 247 to 44 million by 2030. If 95% of passenger miles are autonomous TaaS by 2030 and the lifespan of electric vehicles grows to 500,000 miles as Arbib and Seba predict, then far fewer vehicles will be needed. Manufacturing fewer electric vehicles reduces the pressure to extract metals from laterite ores, pegmatites, the ocean floor, and lower-grade ores in general with higher ecological costs.

Ellingsen et al (2016) estimate that the energy consumed by battery factories per kWh of batteries has halved since 2012, however, that has to be balanced by the growing use lithium from spodumene and nickel and cobalt from laterite ores, and ores with lower metal concentrations that require more energy and produce more pollution. Given the increased energy efficiency in battery manufacturing plants and the growing efficiencies of scale, I would guesstimate that lithium-ion battery emissions are currently at roughly 150 kg  CO2-eq per kWh of battery and that the Gigafactory will lower those emissions by a third to roughly 100 kg  CO2-eq / kWh. If the Model 3, uses a 55 kWh battery, then its battery emissions would be roughly 5500 kg  CO2-eq.

Manufacturing a medium-sized EV without the battery emits 6.5 tonnes of  CO2-eq according to Ellingsen et al (2016). Electric cars don’t have the huge engine block of an ICE car, but they have large amounts of copper in the motor’s rotor and the windings and the Model 3 will have far more electronics than a standard EV. The Model S has 23 kg of electronics and I would guesstimate that the Model 3 will have roughly 15 lbs of electronics if it contains nVidia’s Drive PX or a custom processor based on the K-1 graphics processor. If the GHG emissions are roughly 150 kg  CO2-eq per kg of electronics, we can guesstimate that 2.2 tonnes of  CO2-eq will be emitted to manufacture the electronics in the Model 3. Given the large amount of copper, electronics and sensors in the Model 3, add an additional tonne, plus 5.5 tonnes for its 50 kWh battery, so a total of 13 tonnes of  CO2-eq will be emitted to manufacture the entire car.

Manufacturing a medium-sized ICE car emits between 5 and 6 tonnes, so there is roughly a 7.5 tonne difference in GHG emissions between manufacturing the Model 3 and a comparable ICE car. A new ICE car the size of the Model 3 will get roughly 30 mpg. In the US, a gallon of gasoline emits 19.64 lbs of CO2, but it emits 24.3 lbs of  CO2e when the methane and nitrous oxide are included, plus the emissions from extraction, refining and transportation, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. Therefore, we will need to burn 680 gallons of gasoline or drive 20,413 miles at 30 mpg to equal those 7.5 extra tonnes in manufacturing the Model 3.

At this point, the decision whether the Model 3 makes ecological sense depends on where the electricity is coming from. Let’s assume that the Model 3 will consume 0.30 kWh of electricity per mile, which is what the EPA estimates the Nissan Leaf to consume. The Model S will be a smaller and more aerodynamic car than the Leaf, but it will also weigh significantly more due to its larger battery. If we also include the US national average of 4.7% transmission losses in the grid, then the Model 3 will consume 0.315 kWh per mile. After driving the Model 3 100,000 miles, the total greenhouse gas emissions (including the production emissions) will range between 14.1 and 45.3 tonnes, depending on its energy source to charge the battery.


In comparison, driving a 30 mpg ICE car (with 5.5 tonnes in production emissions) will emit 42.2 tonnes of  CO2-eq after 100,000 miles. If we guesstimate that manufacturing a Toyota Prius will emit 7 tonnes, then driving it 100,000 miles at 52 mpg will emit 28.2 tonnes. Only in places like Kentucky which get almost all their electricity from coal is an ICE car the better environmental choice. The Model 3, however, will have worse emissions than most of its competitors in the green car market, if it is running on average US electricity, which emits 528 grams of CO2-eq per kWh. It will emit slightly more than a plugin hybrid like the Chevy Volt and an efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius and substantially more than a short-range electric, like the Nissan Leaf.

Most previous comparisons between electric cars and ICE cars were based on short-range electrics with smaller batteries, such as the Nissan Leaf, which is why environmental advocates are so enthusiastic about EVs. However, comparing the Model S and Model 3 to the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius hybrid shows that the environmental benefits of long-range EVs are questionable when compared to short-range EVs, plugin hybrids and hybrids. Only when running the Model 3 on cleaner sources of electricity does it emit less greenhouse gases than hybrids and plugin hybrids, but in the majority of the United States it will emit slightly more. Many of the early adopters of EVs also owned solar panels, so buying a Model 3 will reduce their carbon footprint, but the proportion of EV owners with solar panels on their roofs is falling. According to CleanTechnica’s PlugInsights annual survey, 25% of EV buyers before 2012 had solar panels on their roofs, compared to just 12% in 2014-2015. Most people who own solar panels do not have a home battery system so they can not use their clean energy all day, and most EV charging will happen at night using dirtier grid electricity.

Another factor to consider is the effect of methane leakage in the extraction and transport of natural gas. There is a raging scientific debate about what percentage of natural gas leaks into the atmosphere without being burned. A number of studies have concluded that the leakage of methane causes electricity from natural gas to have GHG emissions similar to coal, but there is still no consensus on the matter.  If the leakage rate is as high as some researchers believe, then EVs will emit more greenhouse gases than hybrids and efficient ICE cars in places like California which burn large amounts of natural gas.

On the other hand, many people believe that EVs will last 300,000 miles or even 500,000 miles since they have so few moving parts, so their high emissions in manufacturing will be justified. However, the EV battery will probably have to be replaced, and the manufacturing emissions for a long range EV battery can be as high as building a whole new ICE car. Another factor that could inhibit the long life of Telsa’s cars is the fact that the company builds cars described as “computers on wheels,” which are extremely difficult for third parties to fix and upgrade over time. Telsa only sells its parts to authorized repair shops and much of the functionality of car is locked up with proprietary code and secret security measures, as many do-it-yourselfers have discovered to their chagrin. When Tesla cars are damaged and sold as salvage, Tesla remotely disables its cars, so that they will no longer work even if repaired. The $600 inspection fee to reactivate the car plus the towing fees discourage Teslas from being fixed by third parties. These policies make it less likely that old Teslas will be fixed and their lifespans extended to counterbalance the high environmental costs of producing the cars.

Although the Model 3 has high greenhouse gas emissions in its production and driving it is also problematic in parts of the world that currently use dirty energy, those emissions could be significantly reduced in the future if they are accompanied by a shift to renewable energy, more recycling and the electrification of mining equipment, refining and transport. The car’s ecological benefits will increase if the emissions can be decreased in producing battery materials and the greater energy density of batteries is used to decrease the total materials in batteries rather than keep extending the range of EVs. Producing millions of Model 3s will strain the supply of vital metals and shift extraction to reserves which have higher ecological costs. However, the Model 3 could become a more sustainable option if millions of them are deployed in autonomous Transport as a Service fleets, which Arbib and Seba predict will be widespread by 2030, since TaaS will cost a tenth of the price of owning a private vehicle. If the Model 3 and future autonomous EVs become a means to drop the global demand for private vehicles and that helps reduce the demand for lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper down to sustainable levels, then the high environmental costs of manufacturing the Model 3 would be justified.

Nonetheless, the Model 3 and the NCA 2170 batteries currently being produced by Tesla offer few of those possible future ecological benefits. Most of the metal and graphite in the battery is being produced with energy from fossil fuels. In the short term at least, Telsa batteries will keep growing in capacity to offer more range, rather than reducing the total consumption of metals per battery. The extra sensors, processing power and electronics in the current Model 3 will increase its ecological costs without providing the Level 4 or 5 autonomy that would make it possible to convince people to give up their private vehicles. In the here and now, the Model 3 is generally not the best ecological choice, but it might become a better choice in the future.

The Model 3 promises to transform the market not only for EVs, but cars in general. If the unprecedented 500,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 are any indication of future demand, then long-range electrics with some degree of autonomous driving like the Model 3 will capture most of the EV market. Telsa’s stunning success will induce the rest of auto-makers to also start making long-range EVs with large batteries, advanced sensors, powerful image processors, advanced AI, cellular networking, driving data collection and large multimedia touchscreens. These features will dramatically increase the environmental costs of car manufacturing. Whether these features will be balanced by other factors which reduce their environmental costs remains to be seen.

Much of this analysis is guess work, so it should be taken with a grain of salt, but it points out the problems with automatically assuming that EVs are always better for the environment. If we consider sulfate emissions, EVs are significantly worse for the environment. Also, when we consider the depletion of critical metal reserves, EVs are significantly worse than ICE vehicles.

The conclusion should be that switching to long-range EVs with large batteries and advanced electronics bears significant environmental challenges. The high manufacturing emissions of these types of EVs make their ecological benefits questionable for private vehicles which are only used on average 4% of the time. However, they are a very good option for vehicles which are used a higher percentage of the time such as taxis, buses and heavy trucks, because they will be driven many miles to counterbalance their high manufacturing emissions. Companies such as BYD and Proterra provide a model of the kinds of electric vehicles that Tesla should be designing to promote “sustainable transport.” Tesla has a few ideas on the drawing board that are promising from an ecological perspective, such as its long-haul semi, the renting out of Teslas to an autonomous TaaS fleet, and a new vehicle that sounds like a crossover between a sedan and a minibus for public transport. The current Model 3, however, is still a vehicle which promotes private vehicle ownership and bears the high ecological costs of long-range lithium batteries and contributes to the growing shortage of critical metals.

Clearly, EVs alone are not enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or attain sustainable transport in general. The first step is to work on switching the electric grid to cleaner renewable energy and installing more residential solar, so that driving an EV emits less CO2. However, another important step is redesigning cities and changing policies so that people aren’t induced to drive so many private vehicles. Instead of millions of private vehicles on the road, we should be aiming for walkable cities and millions of bikes and electric buses, which are far better not only for human health, but also for the environment.

A further step where future Model 3s may help is in providing autonomous TaaS that helps convince people to give up their private vehicles. However, autonomous EVs need to be matched by public policies that disincentivize the kind of needless driving that will likely occur in the future. The total number of miles will likely increase in the future due to autonomous electric cars driving around looking for passengers to pick up and people who spend more time in the car because they can surf the web, watch movies, and enjoy the scenery without doing the steering. Plus, the cost of the electricity to charge the battery is so cheap compared to burning gasoline that people will be induced to drive more, not less.


Climate, Energy, Economy: Pick Two

7 07 2016

Another darn good read from Raul Ilargi of Automatic Earth…..


We used to have this saying that if someone asks you to do a job good, fast and cheap, you’d say: pick two. You can have it good and cheap, but then it won’t be fast, etc. As our New Zealand correspondent Dr. Nelson Lebo III explains below, when it comes to our societies we face a similar issue with our climate, energy and the economy.

Not the exact same, but similar, just a bit more complicated. You can’t have your climate nice and ‘moderate’, your energy cheap and clean, and your economy humming along just fine all at the same time. You need to make choices. That’s easy to understand.

Where it gets harder is here: if you pick energy and economy as your focus, the climate suffers (for climate you can equally read ‘the planet’, or ‘the ecosystem’). Focus on climate and energy, and the economy plunges. So far so ‘good’.

But when you emphasize climate and economy, you get stuck. There is no way the two can be ‘saved’ with our present use of fossil fuels, and our highly complex economic systems cannot run on renewables (for one thing, the EROEI is not nearly good enough).

It therefore looks like focusing on climate and economy is a dead end. It’s either/or. Something will have to give, and moreover, many things already have. Better be ahead of the game if you don’t want to be surprised by these things. Be resilient.

But this is Nelson’s piece, not mine. The core of his argument is worth remembering:

Everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable…

…and approach worthlessness. On the other hand,…

Investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable…

Here’s Nelson:



Nelson Lebo: There appear to be increasing levels of anxiety among environmental activists around the world and in my own community in New Zealand. After all, temperature records are being set at a pace equal only to that of Stephen Curry and LeBron James in the NBA Finals. A recent Google news headline said it all: “May is the 8th consecutive month to break global temperature records.”

In other words, October of last year set a record for the highest recorded global monthly temperature, and then it was bettered by November, which was bettered by December, January, and on through May. The hot streak is like that of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France dominance, but we all know how that turned out in the end.

Making history – like the Irish rugby side in South Africa recently – is usually a time to celebrate. Setting a world record would normally mean jubilation – not so when it comes to climate.

Responses to temperature records range from sorrow, despair, anger, and even fury. Anyone with children or grandchildren (and even the childless) who believes in peer review and an overwhelming scientific consensus has every right to feel these emotions. So why do I feel only resignation?

We are so far down the track at this point that we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Remember the warnings 30 years ago that we needed 30 years to make the transition to a low carbon economy or else there would be dire consequences? Well, in case you weren’t paying attention, it didn’t happen.

While these warnings were being issued by scientists much of the world doubled down – Trump-like – on Ford Rangers, Toyota Tacomas, and other sport utility vehicles. The same appears to be happening now, with the added element that we are experiencing the dire consequences as scientists issue even more warnings and drivers buy even more ‘light trucks’. Forget Paris, the writing was on the wall at Copenhagen.


The bottom line is that most people will (and currently do) experience climate change as a quality of life issue, and quality of life is related to a certain extent to disposable income. Acting or not acting proactively or reactively on climate change is expensive and gets more expensive every day.

If the international community ever takes collective action on climate change it will make individuals poorer because the cost of energy will rise significantly. If the international community fails to act, individuals will be made poorer because of the devastating effects of extreme weather events – like last year’s historic floods where I live as well as in northern England, etc – shown to be on the increase over the last 40 years in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers with verifiable data.

And here is the worst part: most economies around the world rely on some combination of moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels. For example, our local economy is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism, making it exceptionally vulnerable to both acting AND not acting on climate change.

Drought hurts rural economies and extreme winds and rainfall can cost millions in crop damage as well as repairs to fencing, tracks and roads. As a result, both farmers and ratepayers have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family trip. This is alongside living in a degraded environment post-disaster. The net result is a negative impact on quality of life: damned if we don’t.

On the other hand, tourism relies on inexpensive jet fuel and petrol to get the sightseers and thrill seekers to and around the world with enough dollars left over to slosh around local economies. Think about all of the service sector jobs that rely on tourism that in turn depend entirely on a continuous supply of cheap fuel. (This is not to mention peak oil and the lack of finance available to fund any long and expensive transition to an alternative energy world.) I’m told 70% of US jobs are in the service sector, most of which rely on inexpensive commuting and/or a highly mobile customer base.

Any significant approach to curbing carbon emissions in the short term will result in drastic increases to energy prices. The higher the cost of a trip from A to Z the less likely it is to be made. As a result, business owners and ratepayers at Z will have fewer dollars in their pockets to spend on new shoes, a night out, or a family vacation of their own. The net result is a negative impact on their quality of life: damned if we do.


I suppose it deserves repeating: most OECD economies and the quality of life they bring rely on both moderate climate and cheap fossil fuels, but these are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, regardless of emissions decisions made by the international community, we are already on track for decades of temperature records and extreme weather events that will cost billions if not trillions of dollars.

The response in many parts of the world has been to protest. That’s cool, but you can’t protest a drought – the drought does not care. You can’t protest a flood – the flood does not care. And even if the protests are successful at influencing government policies – which I hope long-term they are – we are still on track for decades of climatic volatility and the massive price tags for clean up and repair.

Go ahead and protest, people, but you better get your house in order at the same time, and that means build resilience in every way, shape and form.

Resilience is the name of the game, and I was impressed with Kyrie Irving’s post NBA game seven remarks that the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated great resilience as a team.

As I wrote here at TAE over a year ago, Resilience Is The New Black. If you don’t get it you’re not paying attention.

This article received a wide range of responses from those with incomplete understandings of the situation as well as those in denial – both positions dangerous for their owners as well as friends and neighbours.

The double bind we find ourselves in by failing to address the issue three decades ago is a challenge to put it mildly. Smart communities recognize challenges and respond accordingly. The best response is to develop resilience in the following areas: ecological, equity, energy and economic.

The first two of these I call the “Pope Index” because Francis has identified climate change and wealth inequality as the greatest challenges facing humanity. Applying the Pope Index to decision making is easy – simply ask yourself if decisions made in your community aggravate climate change and wealth inequality or alleviate them.

For the next two – energy and economics – I take more of a Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (credit, Thom Hartmann) perspective that I think is embraced by many practicing permaculturists. Ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) is on its way out and if we do not use some to build resilient infrastructure on our properties and in our communities it will all be burned by NASCAR, which in my opinion would be a shame.

As time passes, everything that is not resilient to high energy prices and extreme weather events will become economically unviable and approach worthlessness.

On the other hand, investments of time, energy, and money in resilience will become more economically valuable as the years pass.

Additionally, the knowledge, skills and experience gained while developing resilience are the ultimate in ‘job security’ for an increasingly volatile future.

If you know it and can do it and can teach it you’ll be sweet. If not, get onto it before it’s too late.

Mark Cochrane on the Indonesian fires catastrophe…..

11 11 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

I have finally escaped the endless haze of Indonesia for the moment. The last of my non-Indonesian team should have flown out this morning, but that still leaves the Indonesian people who have endured much more of this than anyone to continue to stew in the smoke. The rains have begun to return so the air is much clearer but worsens each afternoon and becomes serous if a day or two without rain passes.

This isn’t some ancient process started in the mists of time, this disaster began in 1996 with a misguided attempt to drain 1 million hectares of peat lands to grow rice of all things (Mega-Rice Project, overview). This calamity was made ever worse when the El Nino-spawned droughts of 1997-98 set the land aflame, initiating the now annual haze events that plague Southeast Asia. What most people do not appreciate is that once the land was drained the carbon loss process was set in place, regardless of whether the fires happen. Once drained the peat begins to be broken down by microbes and the peat subsides as CO2 is released to the atmosphere. When the fires occur they simply speed up the ongoing process, shifting the emissions to be more heavily weighted on carbon monoxide and methane. They also produce the toxic haze of particulates that blanket the region. For months no one ever saw the sun and shadows ceased to exist. The world was a luminescent ball of smoke during the daylight hours with no idea of the time of day. Usually it was white but on truly horrific days when the smoke layer was particularly thick the world was a sickly yellow in color.

The Mega Rice Project (MRP) is now long abandoned but the oil palm plantations have since taken over much of the peat lands across Indonesia furthering the country’s desire to supplant Malaysia as the leading global producer of palm oil. They’ve succeeded but now everyone is paying the price. The ex-MRP put in >4,000km of drainage canals in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) but over in Riau Province on Sumatra where I was in August the palm plantations have installed more than 22,000 km of canals to drain the peat. Out in Papua the oil palm developments are proceeding rapidly as well. Given the internal and international upheaval caused by this year’s fires, there is a desire to somehow ‘fix’ the situation with cloud seeding, air tankers dropping water, and thousands of troops in the field to fight the fires but the reality is that such measures have little effect. Now…

respiratory diseases rise

• Indonesia’s ministry of higher education is attempting to create a research consortium on disaster management.
• Data from Indonesia’s disaster management agency showed the number of people diagnosed with acute respiratory infection increased to 556,945 by November 6.
• After a limited cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss peat management, Jokowi said he wanted the research department of Yogyakarta’s University of Gadjah Mada to play a central role in proposing Indonesia’s new peat strategy.

Air quality in Singapore threatened to seep into unhealthy levels again on Friday as Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo instructed ministers to form a specialist haze task force to stave off another wildfire disaster next year.

“Do not let the dry season come around next year with us not having done anything,” Jokowi said.

No one wants to face the real issues of what must be done to truly stop this dynamic. If they want the fires to stop then the people will have to leave the peatlands (unlikely) or learn to live without fire as a major land use tool (doubtful). If there is truly a desire to stop carbon loss from these ancient peat forest lands then the drainage canals must be blocked (not easy or cheap) and the hydrology of the region restored, flooding the lands and the newly established palm oil plantations (economically disastrous). In short, the actions necessary to try to mitigate this disaster will be politically untenable unless there is some offsetting gain that can support relocating growing populations and replace the oil palm economy.

The worst part of this sad tale, which is also unappreciated is that the oil palm boom is going to be a short one before the bust comes on these peat soils. The peat must be drained and in many cases burned to create the conditions to allow the oil palm to grow, however once this is done the land continues to sink and erode. Every year the surface of the land will be lower and more susceptible to flooding. At best they will get one or two 20 year crop cycles in before the lands need to be abandoned. The combination of falling land levels and rising sea levels will destroy the peatlands and land uses they currently support. It is another short term strip mining operation that will yield nothing but profits for a few and another ecological disaster for the world.

The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)


Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

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The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

*          *          *

Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

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The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

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Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

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Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.