With the ban on internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in many first-world nations by 2030 or before, researchers, environmentalists and suppliers to the mining industry are querying how eco-friendly the battery mineral sourcing process really is.

Charles Edelstein, director of Executive Placements, weighs in on the matter.

There’s a pecking order when it comes to plug-in hybrid versus electric vehicle (EV) sustainability. Kumar Venkat, founder and CEO of Climate Trajectories, a company providing climate data-related services, makes the point in a piece for Illuminem that the critical minerals needed to make a single battery electric vehicle (BEV) could be used to manufacture as many as six plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) or 90 hybrid vehicles – and could save many more emissions over these vehicles’ lifetimes than just manufacturing the one BEV.

Perhaps, a few of the northern European governments with staunch EV policies would argue that the above is misleading. A New York Times article from May 2023 reads: “In Norway, the electric vehicle future has arrived. About 80% of new cars sold in Norway are battery-powered. As a result – the air is cleaner, the streets are quieter and the grid has not collapsed…”

The sale of ICE cars will end in Norway in 2025, with 80% of new-car sales being electric in 2022 already – as the country shifts to battery-powered mobility, only. However, the entire lifecycle of a BEV should be considered before any Planet Utopia claims can be made: “While BEVs are environmentally friendly in a local context, globally they [tend to] leave a big climate footprint,” reveal senior environmental researchers and executive search teams who recruit for the mining industry.

“The manufacture of BEV batteries requires expensive and rare metals, while the secure disposal of used and broken batteries is a problem that is being conveniently palmed off on poor, vulnerable countries,” they add, which those in senior safety officer jobs believe is happening because countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces 60% of the world’s cobalt, do not have the legislation in place to protect themselves.

The DRC’s vulnerability is known, in its entirety, to northern European authorities – the Norwegian Refugee Council, as just one concerned party, has been offering humanitarian relief in the country for some years already.

Vendat suggests the immediate challenges of the EV market are threefold:

  • Firstly, the minerals needed to produce EVs could come under supply constraints by such time that many countries have fully outlawed ICE vehicles;
  • Secondly, the EV supply chain, as it relates to minerals and batteries, is largely powered by fossil fuels and produces volumes of emissions before any EVs are able to hit international roads; and
  • Grid electricity, unlike green energy sources such as solar and wind power, can certainly not be considered carbon-free.

While the long-term trajectory regarding EV mineral extraction and battery production is likely to involve clean energy-powered mineral production, the cleanest possible battery chemistries, and a trend toward the greatest possible usage of solar and wind energy to provide power, Vendat rightly argues that in the short term, the EV-centric policy decisions that northern European countries have been making may not in fact be the right ones when it comes to relative (i.e. pre-2030) climate benefits.

Back in December 2020, political economist Dr Thea Riofrancos told The Guardian about her concerns that the race for ‘white oil’ (lithium) had unleashed a mining boom that was damaging the natural environment wherever the extraction was taking place. But that the mining companies involved had European Union environmental policy on their side, because the batteries that would be made for EVs would eventually drive down carbon emissions across the globe.

“There’s a fundamental question behind all this about the model of consumption and production that we now have, which is simply not sustainable,” she advised. “Everyone having an electric vehicle means an enormous amount of mining, refining and all the polluting activities that come with it.”

While it is difficult to directly weigh up any damage caused by mineral extraction for EV batteries (industrial-scale habitat destruction, chemical contamination and noise pollution, and high levels of water consumption as just four examples), with the carbon emissions that will be curtailed by EVs in the future – it is crucial that smart mobility initiatives are implemented in such a way that they can benefit society at large; and not such that eco-trendy urbanites in the first world can drive around feeling proud of their zero-emission cars, while the negative impacts of the mining process continue to fall on the countries that are “poorest and most marginalised”.

Two immediate solutions that come to mind are:

  • The need for governments and the private sector to collaboratively invest in less-destructive battery-manufacturing processes. Solid-state batteries, for example, offer an extensive range of benefits over lithium-ion ones – including the need for extensively fewer materials to be mined, reducing the climate-related impact of mining jobs by up to 39%; and
  • The need for investment in sustainable modes of public transport which reduce the need for individual car ownership, and where a focus is placed on advanced technologies such as sensors and surveillance cameras that seek to reduce accident risk and enhance road-user safety.

Once traffic congestion and travel times to school and work are reduced in cities as a result of these options, and almost anyone can make use of these smart mobility ecosystems as a result of their affordability and convenience, only then will it be time for any positive environmental impacts to be measured.

Image credit: Paul Brennan/Pixabay

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