Green credentials of electric vehicles come under fire

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Global new electric car sales rose 35% in 2023, to nearly 14 million vehicles, with almost all purchased in China, the U.S. and Europe. This was a 35% increase over 2022, and six times higher than in 2018. Although that momentum is faltering this year, as the industry adapts to a mass market, EVs continue rolling off showroom floors.

Much of their appeal comes from manufacturers’ claims that the vehicles will play a key role in averting catastrophic climate change.

Makers proudly assert that EVs will reduce oil consumption by 5 million barrels a day by 2030. While possibly true, global demand for oil is still expected to increase, with the International Energy Agency predicting the global oil supply will grow 8% by 2030, over 2021 levels — not shrink.

EV sales have soared, but for this new technology to be truly sustainable, car companies need to re-assess and retool their entire supply chains. Image by andreas160578 via Pixabay (Public domain).
EV sales have soared, but for this new technology to be truly sustainable, car companies need to re-assess and retool their entire supply chains. Image by andreas160578 via Pixabay (Public domain).

Moreover, while electric vehicles clearly reduce carbon dioxide emissions (provided the electricity powering them isn’t generated using fossil fuels), critics note that the full impact of EVs on the health of the planet must be assessed not only based on climate change, but taking into account impacts on soils, water, air and biodiversity.

Scientists have identified nine planetary boundaries that support life on Earth as we known it, with the overshoot of any one boundary posing an existential threat to humanity. Electric vehicles, while helping stabilize the climate change boundary, are adversely impacting others, including the biosphere integrity, land system change, freshwater use, and “novel entities” (synthetic toxic substance pollution) boundaries, each of which must be respected, if life as we know it is to be protected.

Researchers have also identified a 10th boundary, notes Johan Rockström, who led the international team that defined the planetary boundary framework. That is to acknowledge the inseparable link between planetary health and human well-being.

Recognizing the importance of social justice and equity is not only crucial to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of traditional and Indigenous communities, but also helps protect the profound knowledge of the world’s ecosystems these peoples have acquired over millennia — information vital to protecting the Earth.

The 2023 planetary boundaries update showing 6 boundaries transgressed. The nine boundaries are: climate change (CO2 concentration and radiative forcing), biosphere integrity (genetic and functional), land-system change, freshwater change (blue water use and green water), biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion, and novel entities pollution (including thousands of synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive materials, and more). Image courtesy of Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Richardson et al. 2023 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).
The 2023 planetary boundaries update showing 6 boundaries transgressed. The nine boundaries are: climate change (CO2 concentration and radiative forcing), biosphere integrity (genetic and functional), land-system change, freshwater change (blue water use and green water), biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus), ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution, stratospheric ozone depletion, and novel entities pollution (including thousands of synthetic chemicals, heavy metals, radioactive materials, and more). Image courtesy of Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Richardson et al. 2023 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Lithium mining ‘replicating colonial extractivism’

A typical electric vehicle requires six times more minerals than an internal combustion engine vehicle, increasing global demand for these minerals and creating a mining boom. Lithium and cobalt are essential for EV batteries, with both minerals largely mined in developing countries. The surge in extraction is already harming local communities.

Lithium is most easily mined in the “lithium triangle,” encompassing the salt flats of the Andes Mountains of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina — nations that hold more than half of the world’s lithium reserves. Indigenous communities in the triangle are already protesting vehemently about the impact of this mining.

“Whether the world likes it or not, Indigenous peoples live in strategic places where natural wealth is found,” says Elena Rivera Cardoso, president of the Indigenous Colla community in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. “A new economic activity cannot arrive and impose itself at the cost of a centuries-old culture that lives, and has always lived, in the region,” she says.

The Colla homeland lies within the Maricunga salt flat, situated at 3,700 meters (12,100 feet) above sea level. The salt flats are located in cuencas, basins where glacial runoff accumulates, and where ice melts and water evaporates in the hot sun, leaving behind lithium brine deposits.

Because Chile’s salt flats are in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth, all life there depends on the limited amounts of water coming from the annual melt of mountain glacier ice. But now, mining operations are laying claim to much of that water.

While lithium extraction has been going on for decades in the Atacama salt flat, one of the bigger salt flats, it is only just beginning in the much smaller and more fragile Maricunga salt flat. Mining companies are rapidly moving in, including state-owned companies in Chile, and with China investing more than $4 billion in lithium mining in South America in recent years.

Chilean geologist Luciano Travella warns that lithium mining is growing so fast that “it is likely that in a few years, probably no more than two decades, the Salar de Maricunga will be completely degraded.”

This is unjust, says Travella, because the mining will “bring no benefit to the local population, which will be left to deal with the [social, economic and environmental] damage.”

Map showing the lithium triangle.
Map showing the lithium triangle.

Bárbara Jerez, a lecturer at the University of the Bío-Bío in Concepción, Chile, who has studied the Atacama people, told Mongabay that lithium mining is “replicating colonial extractivism,” with mining benefits going almost entirely abroad, while local populations struggle with “both water depletion and ethno-cultural fractures.”

Chile has just announced plans to protect some of its salt flats, but researchers have criticized the decision for not relying on scientific data. These protections aren’t expected to significantly slow mining firm exploitation of the Atacama or Maricunga regions.

Community and environmental impacts are expected to worsen as mining gains momentum in the fragile arid region. Around 80% of animal species in the Atacama are native. They include three flamingo species, whose populations are already in decline. (Researchers say Chile’s new salt flat protections fail to protect critical flamingo nesting sites.)

Of the 53 animal species living in the salt flats, 17, including the vicuña, the guanaco and the short-tailed chinchilla, are endangered in Chile. Scientists are also beginning to appreciate the importance of the unique microbiota living in the salt flats.

Rivera predicts the destruction of the Maricunga salt flat will annihilate her people. “We are transhumants: [pastoralists] who rear animals. We are a people who work with ancestral medicine, with herbs found in our territories,” she explains. “We are moved by the Earth, the water, the sun, the moon, we converge with them ancestrally and spiritually. If the salt pans dry up, our water will dry up and with it our culture … Water moves everything in life.”

Lesly Muñoz, Rivera’s daughter, adds, “If we don’t have water to make life in the mountains, we’re going to be just another one of the many Indigenous cultures in Chile that has been exterminated.”

Scientists say the heavy use of water by the mines is accelerating the death of the flats, with one study estimating that copper and lithium mining consume more than 65% of the region’s water. James J.A. Blair, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, calls mining lithium through brine evaporation “senseless,” and adds: “Communities are suffering a slow violence that’s creating conditions of ecological exhaustion.”

Even in the Atacama salt flat, where lithium mining is more widely accepted, there are problems. Some mining companies are investing in new technology to reduce the environmental impact. But Vladimir Reyes, president of the Council of Atacama Peoples, is concerned about the potential impact of new technology on the health of his people. “A lot is being said about using new technologies but they haven’t been tested and they haven’t been regulated,” Reyes says. He notes that plans are being drawn up for lithium extraction until 2060, without consultation of Indigenous communities.

The Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) is native to the Andes. It is migratory, able to travel up to 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) in one day. In summer, the birds live in salt lakes (including the Atacama salt flat), and migrate to the lower wetlands for winter. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to disruption of its habitat from mining. Image by Gérard Cachon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
The Andean flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus) is native to the Andes. It is migratory, able to travel up to 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) in one day. In summer, the birds live in salt lakes (including the Atacama salt flat), and migrate to the lower wetlands for winter. It is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List due to disruption of its habitat from mining. Image by Gérard Cachon via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Electric cars are heavy because of their lithium batteries. This Hummer EV weighs 4,100 kg (9,000 lbs), with its lithium battery alone weighing 1,300 kg (2,900 lbs), as much as a small car such as the Honda CV. This means that the tires on EVs wear out more quickly, releasing microplastics and other toxic chemicals into the environment. Image by Automotive Rhythms via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Electric cars are heavy because of their lithium batteries. This Hummer EV weighs 4,100 kg (9,000 lbs), with its lithium battery alone weighing 1,300 kg (2,900 lbs), as much as a small car such as the Honda CV. This means that the tires on EVs wear out more quickly, releasing microplastics and other toxic chemicals into the environment. Image by Automotive Rhythms via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Cobalt in the Congo

Cobalt, a byproduct of copper mining, is also a vital EV battery ingredient. The world’s largest known deposit of cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a poor nation with one of the world’s largest mineral wealth reserves. It already supplies about 70% of the world’s cobalt.

It hasn’t escaped the natural resource curse — corporate extractivism based on a colonial model that impoverishes countries instead of developing them — say critics. A recent report by Australian journalist Michael Davie indicates the scale of the problem:

The violent rush to extract cobalt is unleashing a new cycle of misery and foreign domination in one of the world’s poorest nations. Massive industrial operations — mostly Chinese-owned — have moved into the Congo, intent on dominating the next energy epoch. The big mines are accused of corruption, poisoning the locals, and exploiting the Congo’s resources with little benefit for the country.

Mongabay in March highlighted a new report that revealed “a glaring disconnect” between a mining industry keen to promote cobalt as sustainable and free from social harms, and the “stark reality” on the ground.

The report went on to describe the mining city of Kolwezi, home to more than 500,000 people, that appears to be turning into a “sacrifice zone,” with water contamination leading to health consequences and human rights abuses.

The vast majority of the DRC’s cobalt comes from large industrial mines in its southern cobalt and copper belt.

EV supply chain impacts

Electric cars may be energy efficient, but that advantage is offset by other problems. Analysts note that to accurately gauge the environmental problems of any product, its entire supply chain must be evaluated. In the case of EVs, that goes beyond destructive mining practices.

For one, EVS are much heavier than conventional vehicles due to their batteries. Comparing two full-size pickups, Kelley Blue Book notes that a 2023 GMC Hummer EV weighs in at more than 9,000 pounds (4,100 kilograms), including the 2,900-lb (1,300-kg) battery, while a 2023 gasoline-powered GMC Sierra weighs less than 6,000 lbs (2,700 kg). EVs currently weigh roughly 20-30% more than equivalent ICE vehicles, though car companies say they’re working on upping battery efficiency and decreasing weight.

The heavier the car, the greater the wear and tear on tires — which over their life produce a poorly reported but heavy toxic load. Tires contain 400+ chemicals and microplastics that can contaminate air, water and land, and which put increased pressure on the novel entities, freshwater, and aerosols planetary boundaries.

One of the chemicals emitted from rolling tires is called 6PPD; it’s particularly toxic to fish. A study published in Science in 2021 linked 6PPD to deaths of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) in U.S. West Coast rivers.

As much as 75% of global waste tires — roughly 750,000 tires annually — currently end up in landfills, according to some estimates, while others place the figure at around 40%. The higher weight of EVs, along with the number of vehicles manufactured overall in the future, will likely push the number of waste tires far higher. Image by Jared Earle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
As much as 75% of global waste tires — roughly 750,000 tires annually — currently end up in landfills, according to some estimates, while others place the figure at around 40%. The higher weight of EVs, along with the number of vehicles manufactured overall in the future, will likely push the number of waste tires far higher. Image by Jared Earle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

EV solutions

Industry representatives are confident that some EV environmental harm can be reduced. They say, for example, that batteries will become more efficient over time, reducing vehicle weight.

Alina Racu, batteries and metals analysis manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment, told Mongabay that the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA), created to promote responsible mining practices, will help. “In the case of lithium, [those technological advances] include scaling up more sustainable lithium extraction methods, such as Direct Lithium Extraction from brine, which can reduce water consumption and carbon footprint,” she said. Racu also feels sure new battery technologies can be developed that rely less on lithium.

EV marketing notes that most materials going into EVs can be recycled, promising a circular economy, where no resources are wasted. While this seems possible, it is as yet a pipe dream. Relatively few batteries are currently being recycled. As with most metals, companies find it more profitable to mine more than to undertake the complex and often expensive task of recycling.

A recent U.N. report finds that the amount of e-waste, defined as any discarded product with an electric plug or battery, is piling up five times faster than recycling efforts. In the U.S., it’s estimated only about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are getting recycled. Globally, there could be more than 12 million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries ready for recycling (or for being dumped) by 2030, with another five-to-tenfold increase between 2030 and 2040.

EV advocates also say that, while other environmental impacts matter, it is important not to forget the big advantage of electric vehicles: they don’t produce greenhouse gases that heat up the planet. This, however, isn’t entirely true: While EVs don’t use gasoline or diesel while being driven, they do consume substantial amounts of oil, natural gas and coal during their manufacture.

Analysts say electric cars are no silver bullet for addressing the climate crisis. They emphasize the need to reduce resource consumption by making fewer cars and greatly expanding energy efficient mass transit, like the electric bus seen here. Image by Jared Earle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Analysts say electric cars are no silver bullet for addressing the climate crisis. They emphasize the need to reduce resource consumption by making fewer cars and greatly expanding energy efficient mass transit, like the electric bus seen here. Image by Jared Earle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Reducing consumption

Making EVs more sustainable is not, in itself, ultimately a solution. One of the key challenges facing humankind is how to avoid the Jevons Paradox, by which making something work better reduces cost, and thereby encourages people to use more of it, not less.

This often cancels out the environmental benefits of increasing efficiency in the first place. EVs may produce fewer greenhouse gases than fossil-fueled cars. But if, as some estimates suggest, by 2050 we are producing 2.4 billion vehicles annually, a billion more than now, the overall harm will be greater, even if all of them are electric. We end up using more minerals, more land, water, energy, more everything …

The world continues being seduced by the siren song of the technology industry, that promises we’re just one innovation away from solving the polycrisis (to which it has greatly contributed). But many analysts believe that technology alone won’t suffice.

To make transportation sustainable, we must find ways to move people using fewer resources. Materials scientist Josh Lepawsky tells Mongabay this means that the use made of a vehicle needs to become more important than the way the vehicle is powered.

Put simply, we need to prioritize the manufacture of more vehicles used for public transportation, and make fewer vehicles for individual use.

Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He also co-founded the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where he and a team of international scientists did deep research into the planetary boundaries framework. Image courtesy of Johan Rockström.
Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. He also co-founded the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where he and a team of international scientists did deep research into the planetary boundaries framework. Image courtesy of Johan Rockström.

Dustin Mulvaney, a professor of environmental studies at San José State University, sees a conflict between two environmental crises: a rapidly warming climate on one hand, and a serious decline in biodiversity on the other. “We’re going to do what we’ve always done with our environmental problems, push one on to the other,” he told National Geographic. “We’re moving our climate problem onto our biodiversity crisis. It’s just more of the same.” In other words, we have to respect all the planetary boundaries to maintain Earth’s operating systems.

If the world is to achieve the rapid global sustainability transformation urgently needed over the next few decades, then supply chains for all types of products, including EVs, must be shifted from a linear “take, make, waste” economic model, to a circular “reduce, reuse, recycle” economic model — respecting all of the planetary boundaries.

We must avoid focusing on a single boundary, said Rockström in an exclusive Mongabay interview. And circular resource models enable us to do this. It means, he explains, that “We can … transition away from fossil fuels back into the safe space on climate for energy … That is a path towards a more desirable future.”

Citations:

Rockström, J., Gupta, J., Qin, D., Lade, S. J., Abrams, J. F., Andersen, L. S., … Zhang, X. (2023). Safe and just Earth system boundaries. Nature, 619(7968), 102-111. doi:10.1038/s41586-023-06083-8

Alam, M. A., & Sepúlveda, R. (2022). Environmental degradation through mining for energy resources: The case of the shrinking Laguna Santa Rosa wetland in the Atacama region of Chile. Energy Geoscience, 3(2), 182-190. doi:10.1016/j.engeos.2021.11.006

Tian, Z., Zhao, H., Peter, K. T., Gonzalez, M., Wetzel, J., Wu, C., … Kolodziej, E. P. (2021). A ubiquitous tire rubber-derived chemical induces acute mortality in coho salmon. Science, 371(6525), 185-189. doi:10.1126/science.abd695

This article by Gerry McGovern, Sue Branford was first published by Mongabay.com on 23 May 2024. Lead Image: The James’s flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi), also called the puna flamingo, inhabit the Atacama Desert. Named after Harry Berkeley James, a British naturalist who studied it, it is the rarest species of the flamingo family. James’s flamingo was thought to be extinct until the 1950s, when a small flock was discovered. The species’ biggest threat is habitat destruction by humans. The total James’s flamingo population is about 106,000 individuals according to the IUCN, and it is classified as near threatened. Image by Christian Mehlführer via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

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