‘They’re Coming for Your Cars’

Industry experts say higher tax on petrol and diesel cars may discourage people from buying them, even as electric cars lack favour among buyers. Photo: Bloomberg
Industry experts say higher tax on petrol and diesel cars may discourage people from buying them, even as electric cars lack favour among buyers. Photo: Bloomberg


  • Even if politicians can push us all into e-vehicles, they will have to be small and scarce to achieve emissions goals.

“The Impossible Dream" is the title of a new report on electric vehicles from the Manhattan Institute’s Mark Mills. After reading the particulars one wonders whether that title is too optimistic. One issue that probably hasn’t received enough attention is that even if politicians can manage to force all of humanity out of cars with internal combustion engines, it will still be extremely hard to meet political emissions targets unless the surviving electric vehicles are small and scarce. What also may not be appreciated given all the alleged innovation surrounding EVs is that production of the minerals needed to make them may become less environmentally friendly, not more.

Not that it will be easy to get consumers to give up their gasoline-powered cars. Mr. Mills writes:

. . . policies unprecedented in scope and consequence are planned to ban the sale of the type of vehicle that 99% of people use—that is, vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE). Instead, government policies are being launched to mandate, directly and indirectly, electric vehicles (EVs).

Rarely has a government, at least the U.S. government, banned specific products or behaviors that are so widely used or undertaken. Indeed, there have been only two comparably far-reaching bans in U.S. history: the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the consumption of alcohol (repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment); and the 1974 law prohibiting driving faster than 55 mph. Neither achieved its goals; both were widely flouted, and the first one engendered unintended consequences, not least of which was criminal behavior.

So the precedents are not encouraging, and consumer embrace of electric vehicles may not be as enthusiastic as it appears. Mr. Mills writes:

Enthusiasts rightly credit Elon Musk with launching today’s excitement about EVs . . . It took six years after its introduction before Tesla sold its 200,000th car. Two years after Ford introduced its electric Mustang Mach-E, sales reached only 150,000 (now the distant second most popular EV in America). Compare that to 1983, when Chrysler invented the minivan, well-timed to meet a demographic shift; consumers bought more than 200,000 in one year. But the consumer adoption record belongs to the 1964 Mustang, another category-creating car and one well-timed to meet the demographic shift of that era. Ford sold 1 million Mustangs within 18 months. It took Tesla 92 months to reach that number.

Mr. Mills also takes aim at the notion that consumers are willingly moving toward fewer and smaller cars:

[Internal combusiton engine] prohibitionists are the same as, or at least intellectual fellow travelers with, those who claim that we’ve reached “peak car." The argument here is that millennials (born 1981–96) and Gen Zs (born 1997–2012) don’t share the affection for cars of baby boomers (born 1946–64). The former two cohorts are ostensibly eager to embrace ride-sharing, bicycles, scooters, and mass transit.

Headlines have touted that the “Western world has turned its back on car culture." Goldman Sachs analysts write: “Millennials have been reluctant to buy items such as cars" and are “turning to a new set of services that provide access to products without the burdens of ownership, giving rise to what’s being called a ‘sharing economy.’" Pundits, especially post-Covid lockdown, intone that remote work will reduce the number of trips that people will take.

The data show that there is nothing to the belief that people in general, or in the rising generation, are giving up driving. Millennials—the first generation of the Internet era—now constitute the largest share of the population. It is thus notable, according to a recent MIT analysis, that, compared with boomers, millennials exhibit “little difference in preferences for vehicle ownership" and that “in contrast to anecdotes, we find higher usage in terms of vehicle miles traveled." The share of cars bought by the yet-to-come-of-age Gen Zs has increased fivefold in the past five years.

Mr. Mills isn’t done attacking the conventional wisdom on consumers and mobility :

Another pillar of the peak-car thesis is that urbanization diminishes the need for cars, especially the need for people to drive long distances. Census data, however, show that the urbanization trend ended around 2010, when net migration to nonmetro and rural areas began. While that trend was briefly accelerated by the lockdowns, the net migration to rural and ex-urban zip codes reverted to the trend “observed prior to the pandemic." As one researcher noted in 2022, the de-urbanization trend could “become more commonplace" if late millennials and Gen Zs follow evidence suggesting that a rising share find “suburban and small-town life more attractive"...

Now, in service of government climate strategies to achieve radical emissions reductions, consumers will need to adopt EVs at a scale and velocity 10 times greater and faster than the introduction of any new model of car in history. Policymakers are right about at least one thing: that won’t happen naturally from market forces or consumer preferences.

People keep wanting more and bigger cars. And if the cars have to be electric, that means a lot of energy-intensive mining to generate the minerals to make batteries and other car parts. This mining activity seems to be making a larger and dirtier environmental footprint. Mr. Mills writes:

For all of history, the costs of a metal in both dollar and environmental terms are dictated primarily by ore grades, i.e., the share of the rock dug up that contains the metal sought. (Also related is the depth of the ore and thus the quantity of “overburden"—the rocks, dirt, trees, etc., on top of the ore—that must first be removed.) Ore grade is what accounts for the differences in the cost per pound of gold, $15,000, and iron, $0.05. The former ore grades are typically below 0.001% and the latter over 50%.

Iron (and aluminum) are uniquely abundant metals; not so the suite of critical “energy minerals," for which ore grades range from 2% to 0.1%. Average nickel ore grade is under 2% and for copper below 1%, which means, arithmetically, that at least one ton of rock (excluding the overburden) must be dug up, ground up, and processed to obtain, respectively, 40 pounds and 20 pounds of metal. Such geological realities determine the amount of energy used by big machines to do the digging, moving, grinding, refining, etc.

The global mining industry today already accounts for about 40% of all industrial energy use, and that’s before an epic expansion that will be needed to meet green plans. Petroleum itself typically accounts for half of mining-sector energy use.

Thus, estimating future EV energy emissions requires including the trajectory for ore grades. There is no evidence that any study is doing so.

Every metal exhibits a long-run and significant decline in ore grades. [The International Energy Agency] acknowledges this, even if it tendentiously understates the reality: “Future [minerals] production is likely to gravitate towards more energy-intensive pathways." The word “likely" dodges the fact that the data and the trends are clear. Copper is typical and is one metal for which there are no substitutes for building EVs or wind and solar hardware. As a National Renewable Energy Laboratory paper pointed out, “a decrease in copper ore grade between 0.2% and 0.4%, will require seven times more energy than present-day operations." And copper ore grades are forecast to continue the long-run decline...

Mr. Mills cites an IEA report showing a trend of increasingly energy-intensive mining to collect a number of other minerals needed for EVs and adds:

All the trends for declining ore grades are visible, even if they are ignored.

But apparently they are not entirely ignored by the central planners seeking to achieve emissions limits. Mr. Mills writes:

Given the realities of mineral supplies and uncertainties about associated emissions, IEA and net zero planners have made it clear that “behavior change is critical" to achieving climate goals. For example, “demand side measures such as limiting the growth of battery size" in electric cars can “help bridge the [mineral supply] gap." The most popular EVs (outside of China) have big batteries to provide the range that consumers want and that manufacturers tout, and because global trends show that buyers want large SUVs—the global SUV share is up from 15% of all new vehicles two decades ago to one-third now, and over one-half in the United States. But according to IEA, “this trend could be curbed by enacting policies that discourage vehicles with extremely large batteries, for example by linking incentives to battery sizes or, in the longer term, taxing EVs with large batteries."

. . . Consumers are also to be persuaded, or forced, to drive less in general and travel more by bus, bicycle, rail, ride-share, or on foot, and to own fewer cars in the first place. As stated in the IEA net zero goal: the number of global households without a car needs to rise from 45% today to 70% by 2050, reversing a century-long trend of rising ownership. One researcher simply stated: “There is therefore a need for a wide range of policies that include measures to reduce vehicle ownership and usage." As usual, California regulators are ahead of the proverbial curve in admitting that the state’s emissions goals will require citizens of that state—on top of being forced into EVs—to drive 25% fewer miles than they did 30 years ago . . .

In the face of all this, it would be reasonable to reach the conclusion that, put simply, they’re coming for your cars.

Consider yourself warned.


James Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival" and also the co-author of “Borrowed Time: Two Centuries of Booms, Busts and Bailouts at Citi."

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