A closer look at electric vehicle growth: impact on pollution, and labour conditions in the mines supplying raw materials

solar-power-1020194_1920The summer started with several “good news” stories about the surge of electric vehicles, such as “Starting in 2019, Volvo will use electricity to power every new model” from the Washington Post (July 5) , quoting Volvo’s CEO :  “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”  Bloomberg Business Week, summarizing the findings of its latest New Energy forecast,  stated on July 7, “in just eight years, electric cars will be as cheap as gasoline vehicles, pushing the global fleet to 530 million vehicles by 2040″, and “Electric cars will outsell fossil-fuel powered vehicles within two decades as battery prices plunge, turning the global auto industry upside down and signaling economic turmoil for oil-exporting countries” .  On July 6,  France announced   it would end the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2040 ,  and on July 26 the U.K. released its Clean Air Plan, which included  a ban on the sale of new diesel and gas cars after 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that.

Response to the U.K. announcement is mixed.  In “Electric cars are not the solution to air pollution” Professor Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the government’s  Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants states that “The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough,” “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.”  In his role as a member of  the Centre for London’s commission on the future of the capital’s roads and streets  ,    Professor Kelly provides more detail about the problem of particle pollution and states:  “London should lead in showing electric cars will not tackle air pollution”  in The Guardian (August 4).  His conclusion: “The safe and efficient movement of people around the city can only be achieved through a clean and expanded mass transit system served by buses, overground trains and the underground system – and as much active transport in the form of walking and cycling as is feasibly possible.”

Others are raising issues about electric vehicles on other grounds, specifically the environmental costs  and labour conditions of producing the lithium ion batteries that power them.  These are not new concerns:  Carla Lipsig Mumme and Caleb Goods raised the flag in June 2015 with “The battery revolution is exciting, but remember they pollute too”   in The Conversation.   In January 2016, Amnesty International published a detailed documentation of the hazardous working conditions and the use of child labour in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in  This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt  . (Cobalt is also used in mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices). The report  is available in English, French and Chinese from this link .

More recently,  “Politically charged: do you know where your batteries come from? ” appeared in The Conversation (July 26),   providing an overview of the geography , politics, and environmental impact of  lithium-ion battery raw materials. Briefly, the current major producers of lithium are Australia, Chile, Argentina and China, with Australia and Chile accounting for about 75% of the total. The main environmental concern, especially in Chile, is that the extraction can impact water supply in desert areas.  The article also looks at supply chain issues and states : “With almost half of the world’s cobalt ore reserves concentrated in Democratic Republic of Congo for the foreseeable future, and with a large proportion of refining capacity located in China, the supply chain could be more vulnerable.”  Not to mention the vulnerability of the miners Amnesty International has documented.

A  Canadian viewpoint on  the issue of supply:   “Clean Energy Spurs Lithium Rush, Demands Response to ‘Dirty Mining’” in the  Energy Mix (August 8). In the article, Financial Post columnist Peter Tertzakian states: “ it takes the equivalent of 15,000 cell phone batteries to make one battery for an electric car,” and “ramping up raw material inputs to build millions of car batteries a year fills the back of the envelope with scalability issues.” These supply issues may lead to a growth of “dirty mining” practices.  Will Canada be affected by the push for clean energy raw materials?  We do not currently produce lithium, although the article states that  engineers are trying to isolate it from tar sand/oil sand waste. We are a minor producer of other battery components,  graphite and cobalt, and the 3rd largest  producer of  nickel in the world.  According to Bloomberg News in August, the growth of electric vehicles will drive a doubling of demand for nickel by 2050. However, Bloomberg reports that  mining giant  BHP Bilton will invest in Australia to make it the world’s largest producer of nickel for electric vehicle batteries.

A final troubling issue with electric vehicles: disposal.  “The rise of electric cars could leave us with a big battery waste problem ”   according to The Guardian (August 10) , which cites the International Energy Agency estimates of  140m electric cars globally by 2030, resulting in a possible  11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling.  Two solutions are profiled in the article: recycling and reuse. The recycling profile features the CEO of  Canadian battery recycling start-up company, Li-Cycle, which is pioneering a  wet chemistry process which would  retrieve all of the important metals from batteries. The  proponents of the re-use solution include Aceleron and carmaker Nissan, which has patented a process for re-use. The article states that  car batteries can still have up to 70% of their capacity when they stop being good enough to power electric vehicles, so that they can be broken down, tested and re-packaged for functions such as home energy storage.

 

 

 

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