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.

 

 

 

Union calls for a legal responsibility on employers to address a crisis in U.K. air pollution

BWTUC logoThe Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union Council (BWTUC) is the Southwest London arm of the Trades Union Congress and a founding supporter of the Greener Jobs Alliance. The BWTUC has undertaken a campaign against toxic air, and argues that employers are the root cause of diesel emissions –  from their transport fleets as well as the individual  journeys to and from work made by workers.  As part of its campaign against what it calls the “number one public health issue”, BWTUC will help local unions to carry out monitoring of pollution levels where they work, and is also producing online training modules which will be available at the Greener Jobs Alliance website after a May 27 launch.  Finally, it is advocating for a Clean Air Act, as stated in the  Greener Jobs Alliance Top 10 Election Demands  : #10: “ Introduce a Clean Air Act to tackle air pollution once and for all. Place a clear legal responsibility on employers and businesses to address air quality and develop a network of low emission zones in pollution hot spots.”

The U.K. government has addressed the issue of roadside air pollution in Improving air quality in the UK: tackling nitrogen dioxide in our towns and cities: Draft UK Air Quality Plan for tackling nitrogen dioxide  (May 2017).  Unlike the BWTUC, the government clearly sees pollution as an individual, not employer, responsibility.  “The UK Government is clear that any action to improve air quality must not be done at the expense of local businesses and residents. Therefore local authorities must work closely with local people to create an approach which works for them. Everyone has a role to play in helping to address NOx by considering how they can reduce emissions through their day-to-day activities, for example by choosing cleaner vehicles.”  The government does propose incentives for low carbon fuel vehicle fleets, and for clean busses for commuting, but the plan is controversial and inadequate – see “UK’s new air pollution plan dismissed as ‘weak’ and ‘woefully inadequate‘” and  “Air pollution plan: sacrificing the nation’s health to save an election campaign“, both of which appeared in The Guardian on May 5.

double decker busAccording  to a BWTUC press release , the people of Battersea/Wandsworth have a lot at stake: “In 2016 Putney High St had the dubious distinction of being the most polluted road in the whole of Europe.  By law hourly levels of Nitrogen Dioxide must not exceed 200 micrograms per cubic metre more than 18 times in one year. In fact, the hourly limit was exceeded over 1,200 times in 2016. In January 2017 the standard was breached 11 times in one day.” …. “In April, the Wandsworth Guardian quoted a report that showed 29 schools in the borough located in areas exceeding the safe legal limit.”

C40 Summit of Mayors and cities’ climate leadership; Toronto receives its “Environmental Report Card”

The C40 Summit of Mayors held in Mexico City in early December occasioned a number of announcements and publications.  The city of Montreal has joined the growing C40 network, according to the Montreal  press release .  Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City announced that they will ban diesel cars from their centres by 2025, according to The Guardian.  A new report, Deadline 2020: How cities will get the job done   provides an analysis and a roadmap of what the 84 global C40 cities need to do to accomplish the goals of the Paris Agreement. It calls for emission reduction from an annual average of above 5 tCO2e per citizen today to around 2.9 tCO2e per citizen by 2030.  A companion report,  How U.S. Cities Will Get the Job Done highlights the nearly 2,400 individual climate actions taken by the 12 current U.S. members of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group over the past decade.  Michael Bloomberg,  former New York City mayor and President of C40, said, “Mayors don’t look at climate change as an ideological issue. They look at it as an economic and public health issue…. Regardless of the decisions of the incoming administration, U.S. mayors will continue to deliver action and lead the way.”

Toronto’s former mayor David Miller was President of C40 in 2008 – but Toronto’s recent Environmental Progress  Report    from the volunteer  Toronto Environmental Alliance    finds that “While we have seen some progress issues like toxics and waste, City Hall is still far from fulfilling their responsibilities on climate change and transportation.” In reviewing the environment-related decisions made by Toronto City Council since the election in Fall 2014, the report  notes that  the current mayor committed to the Paris Agreement, and the Council has committed  to develop a new long-term climate action plan for May 2017 with  an 80% reduction target by 2050. Neither of these actions have any funds associated with them, and the TEA urges Council to “dramatically ramp up funding”.  Toronto’s climate and energy goals, and its current Action Plan, are available here.