By Raymond Errity
For many years, the Media has reported electric cars as being the way of the future and the only way people should have private transportation. They have claimed that electric cars are 100% clean and that petrol and diesel cars are killing the planet and are more expensive to run. This has been the mainstream narrative that has gone mostly unchallenged for more than 20 years. There are several reasons for people to question this narrative such as where does the electricity for these cars come from, where do the materials in the batteries come from and are the people who make electric cars actually interested in environmentalism.
Car companies such as Tesla have positioned their marketing around how clean their cars are compared to the competition. They always state how superior it is to own an electric car over a normal car. Other companies that also make normal cars such as Toyota also do the same with the electric car range. There is always mention of electricity being clean and good for the planet but they never talk about where this electricity comes from. A large number of electric cars use a plug socket to charge the batteries. I don’t mean the normal kind of plug socket you will find in your home. These are very different in design and you can find plugs in some places like at your local Tesco (some of the time). These plugs often get their power from the mains which is the electricity grid that powers whole countries.
The electricity that powers everything comes from Power Plants and these can be powered by a variety of sources. In Ireland, the majority of our energy comes from 4 sources, those being natural gas (32.8%), renewable energy such as wind (12.7%), solid fossil fuels such as coal (8.6%) and petroleum products such as crude oil (45.9%). With the vast majority of Ireland’s energy coming from petroleum products such as Crude Oil, that means that most of our power plants and stations are run on petroleum. Electric Cars are run on petroleum just like any other car because Diesel is also made from petroleum oil. Combine this with the 8.6% of Ireland’s electricity that comes from solid fossil fuels and you will find that 54.5% of the time, an electric car can be much dirtier than a car run on petrol or diesel. In fact, it will take 3 years for a diesel car to emit as much C02 as an electric car has done in its construction.
That’s just the electricity used to charge the batteries but the batteries themselves are another issue entirely. Another part of the marketing for many kinds of electric cars is that the batteries are much better in every way compared to the internal combustion engine including being much better for the planet and being more ethical but these companies never mention how they’re more environmentally friendly. They also never mention what these batteries are made of and where the materials are sourced from.
Electric car batteries can be made from many kinds of metals but the most common kinds used are Lithium, Cobalt and Nickel. More than half of the world’s lithium comes from a region known as the Lithium Triangle which contains portions of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Much of this Lithium comes from Bolivia which is one of the poorest countries in South America. The process used to mine lithium involves miners drilling a hole in salt flats and filling it full of brine (salt water) until it reaches the surface before leaving the water to evaporate after several months which leaves lithium and other valuable materials around to collect. It takes approximately 500,000 tons of water to mine 1 ton of lithium. The worst part is that the Lithium Triangle is a very dry region and in the Salar de Atacama in Chile, 65% of the region’s water is used in this process which deprives the locals of clean drinking water. Lithium mining also causes a lot of air, water and soil pollution and with it depriving the people of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina of clean drinking water, it’s not a stretch to say that the mining of rare earth metals for electric car batteries violates human rights because it wastes a large amount of water in dry areas and causes water contamination. The other materials don’t fare any better.
The majority of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the situation there is far worse than in the Lithium Triangle. Not only is there large amounts of water, air and soil pollution but there is also a large amount of child labour used in cobalt mining which is a very serious human rights violation and many of the miners lack proper protective equipment. This lack of equipment is likely the cause of many health problems for people in the communities surrounding these cobalt mines such as breathing difficulties and birth defects.
Lastly, a large portion of the world’s nickel supply comes from Indonesia and The Philippines. The production of Class 1 Nickel from Indonesia’s laterite ore resources produces 2 to 6 times more carbon emissions than Nickel from sulphide deposits. These mines are also mostly powered by coal because that is where 60% of Indonesia’s electricity capacity comes from and 15% of its electricity output is used in nickel and aluminium processing.
The transportation of all of these rare earth metals is also of major concern. For example, the creation of the batteries used in the Toyota Prius, the best selling hybrid car of all time, goes to the ends of the earth. The nickel used in the batteries is mined in Canada then sent over to Europe to be refined then to China to be turned into foam and finally to Japan where it’s put into the batteries which are put into the car. The Toyota Prius has been in production since December 1997 and despite the fact that Toyota have used it to show off how environmentally friendly they have been for over 25 years, the production and use of the car does more damage to the climate over the long term than an old Land Rover Discovery. The area around the nickel mine in Ontario where Toyota sources the nickel for the Prius has been so environmentally damaged that NASA has used the dead zone around the plant to test moon rovers.
A large portion of the media never discusses these issues but they never touch upon the biggest issue of them all over the long term which is how these batteries will be disposed of once they have completely died. The materials contained in these batteries are toxic and can cause serious damage to the environment and people. Not many ever discuss safe methods of disposal or long term plans for what to do with them such as recycling.
Finally, the production of an electric car itself will have produced 25,000 pounds (12.5 tons) of C02 whereas a normal car will have made just 16,000 pounds (8 tons). Over the course of 90,000 miles, a Nissan Leaf will produce 31 metric tons of C02 between its production, electricity consumption and scrapping which is only 3 metric tons less than a Mercedes A Class. An average Tesla will produce 44 metric tons of C02 which is only 5 metric tons less than an Audi A7 Quattro. The claims of electric cars either cutting down the majority of C02 emissions or cutting them out altogether are completely unfounded. Depending on how these cars are driven, the petrol and diesel cars can actually produce less C02 than their electric counterparts.
Between the electricity used to power electric cars when they’re on the road, the rare earth metals used to create them, the environmental costs and the effort required to transport the raw materials to the factories, can car companies really claim that electric cars are more environmentally friendly or more ethical to own than a petrol or diesel car? Can the media and celebrities really claim that what they’re doing is the right thing when children are being exploited in the Congo and Chileans are denied clean drinking water? Can they continue to mostly ignore such major human rights violations and extreme environmental damage just to sell the illusion of “saving the planet” from climate change?
The media, the automotive industry and many others have a lot to explain to the world about what they have been doing in terms of convincing the world to be better to the planet.