The electric vehicle (EV) has become one of the great modern symbols of a world awakened to the profound challenges of unsustainability and climate change. So much so that we may well imagine that Deep Thought’s answer today to Life, the Universe and Everything might plausibly be “EV.” But, as Douglas Adams would surely have asked, if electric vehicles are the answer, what is the question?

Let us imagine the “perfect” EV: solar powered, efficient, reliable and affordable. But is it sustainable? EVs powered by renewable energy may help reduce the carbon footprint of transport. Yet, the measure of sustainability is not merely the carbon footprint but the material footprint: the aggregate quantity of biomass, metal ores, construction minerals and fossil fuels used during production and consumption of a product. The approximate metric tonne weight of an EV constitutes materials such as metals (including rare earths),…

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