aRE ELECTRIC VEHICLES THE SOLUTION?
The electric car market is forecast to grow rapidly over the next ten to 20 years. A total of 750,000 new electric vehicles (EVs) were registered worldwide in 2016, when the global stock of EVs surpassed two million for the first time. The US accounted for the largest portion of global EV stock until 2015, when China surpassed it with about a third of the global total.
Some countries have already emerged as leaders in the EV space. Norway had the highest global market share in EVs in 2016, while China was the fastest growing market. Tesla has become the world’s largest EV manufacturer based on cumulative sales as it recently surpassed China’s BYD even when accounting for the latter’s plug-in hybrid sales.
Despite the clear climate benefits associated with electrifying cars (and trucks and buses), this technology has some serious associated social and environmental issues.
Although renewable energy is generating more of the world’s electricity than ever before, it still only accounts for about 25 percent of global electricity generation. In the UK, the government’s official data has revealed that renewable energy made up 47 percent of the UK’s electricity generation in the first three months of 2020, breaking the previous quarterly record of 39 percent set the previous year. Use of EVs must therefore take into consideration the emissions associated with fossil fuels used to generate a country’s electricity.
Carbon emissions are also associated with manufacturing bodywork for EVs and the extraction of metals used in EV battery technology.
The alkali metal lithium is used in lithium-ion batteries for both EVs and in electronic appliances such as mobile phones. The battery of a Tesla Model S contains about 12 kilograms of lithium.
The so-called Lithium Triangle in South America, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. In South America, the biggest problem associated with the extraction of lithium is water. To extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pump salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. Approximately 500,000 gallons of water are required per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 percent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.
There is also an issue with toxic chemicals which can leak from the evaporation pools, used to extract the lithium, into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. There are reports of fish and animals being killed downstream of lithium facilities.
At present, in Europe, almost all battery-grade lithium is imported. The urgency in getting a lithium supply has unleashed a mining boom, and the race for “white oil” threatens to cause damage to the natural environment wherever it is found. But because they are helping to drive down emissions, the mining companies have EU environmental policy on their side.
Tesla is now seeking to source lithium in Nevada. It plans to mix clay with table salt and then add water, which it says causes a reaction where the salt would leach out with lithium, which can then be extracted.
Nearly 50 percent of world cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). About 20 percent of cobalt supplied from the DRC comes from artisanal mines where child labour and human rights abuses have been reported. Up to 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in the mines for meagre income, according to UNICEF.
EV giant Tesla has indicated that it will make electric vehicle batteries with cobalt-free cathodes although it has not given a timescale. However, it would be preferable to improve worker conditions in places like DRC so those countries can benefit economically from their cobalt resources.
The adverse environmental impacts could be reduced by increasing investment in technologies used to recycle spent rechargeable batteries.
Replacing cars with internal combustion engines with EVs is not a long-term solution for the mass transportation of people. Even if zero GHG emissions can be achieved from EVs used for personal transport, there remains the air-borne and other environmental pollution from tyres and brakes. But in the bigger context, the whole concept of individual private car ownership must be seriously reconsidered as part of a holistic and homogenous integrated public transport network which includes a massive reduction in need and demand for personal travel and greater localisation in the provision of goods and services.
REAL would like to all cars in car share schemes being electric and the promotion of shared ownership models. There also needs to be more investment in public transport systems .