Are Electric Vehicles the Solution to Clean Transport?

With the COP 26 conference in our wing mirrors and the race to achieve Net Zero ongoing, one policy that numerous countries have adopted is that of phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles in favour of Electric Vehicles, or EVs. The UK has been one of the countries to do this, with the government promising to end the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, and Sweden, Holland, France Canada, and Norway have been among other nations to adopt similar measures. In fact, some estimates indicate that in Europe, the number of EVs could increase from roughly 2 million today to around 40 million by the year 2030.

But are EV’s truly ‘green’? Their lack of tailpipe emissions means that EVs are regarded by many as a ‘cleaner’ option for personal mobility than traditional combustion-engine vehicles. However, it is also important to consider which fuel powers the electricity grids that charge EVs. A car charged by a coal-powered grid will generate greater overall emissions over the course of its life than one charged on a grid powered by renewable energy sources. Furthermore, EV production lines have been criticised as being highly energy-intensive and polluting, potentially offsetting some of the gains that their lack of tailpipe emissions helps to create in the battle for Net-Zero. The hope remains that as countries transition to greener sources of electricity, both the production and use of EVs will become a significantly lower-carbon option than those of traditional combustion engines.

A different concern is not so much to do with the emissions of these vehicles, but rather the provenance of their source materials. EVs require both Lithium and Cobalt for their batteries, and the procedure of mining both materials is energy-intensive. Furthermore, reports on cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have shown high instances of human rights abuses, with very low wages for workers who have no alternatives for employment. One report highlighted that car manufacturing companies including Tesla, VW, Volvo, Renault, and Mercedes-Benz take part in supply chains that purchased cobalt from mines where workers are paid as little as 30p per day.

Lithium, on the other hand, has been dubbed as “white oil” in areas of northern Portugal where the element is in plenty. Mining companies are particularly interested in exploiting Portuguese natural reserves, as this would provide a European source of Lithium and limit the need to import the material from other continents to factories in Europe. However, mining for Lithium has been associated with a number of environmental concerns, including the destruction of natural habitats and chemical contamination, not to mention noise pollution. Furthermore, Lithium mining is a very water-intensive activity, which can put further strain on natural landscapes. Outside of Europe, large Lithium reserves are found in South America and the US, and here indigenous groups and native people living on the land are vocals against the projects, which have been shown to contaminate water supplies, and which would remove local people from areas which are historically sacred, or used for farming and herding.

With the rise in demand for both Cobalt and lithium, the need to mine these materials on a large scale has opened new opportunities for investors and mining groups, who claim that the environmental costs of mining are completely outbalanced by the gains made by EVs curbing carbon emissions. While it is true that the world needs cleaner means of transport than combustion engines if Net Zero is to be achieved, it is important to look at any ‘green’ technology from a critical perspective, as it is unlikely that any technological invention will ever be fully free from some damaging side effects.

Today, greater transparency within the supply chains of EV producers is needed, so that consumers can be reassured that those working in cobalt and lithium mines are treated fairly and that the environmental impacts of such mines are well-managed. Beyond this, the development of technologies for recycling cobalt and lithium from older batteries and extracting the materials in less harmful ways is required to ensure that the world’s needs for these materials are met without damage to the environment or to the well-being of those working in and living around such mines. Most of all, however, we need to remember that while technological innovation is of utmost importance in the transition to Net Zero, we must look critically at all technologies to evaluate both their benefits and their downsides, so that the latter can be effectively mitigated.

Tamara Moule.