Content Note: This article contains discussion of child labour and human rights abuses.

For the first time ever, more than 2 million electric vehicles were sold globally in 2019. This represents a 2.5% share of the market, up from 1% in 2017 and 0.3% in 2014. In the UK, electric vehicles made up 11% of all vehicles registered in 2020. Plug-in charging points and Tesla logos are becoming an increasingly common sight on our streets.

These ever-growing numbers are often the cause of great celebration. For lots of people, electric cars are the perfect sustainable solution to reduce vehicle pollution and tackle the climate crisis.

In many ways, they’re right. If we are to stand any chance of keeping global warming to within 1.5°C and avoiding the “severe, widespread and irreversible” impacts that are forecast beyond this, we need to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, road transport makes up 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions every year. Therefore, significantly reducing vehicle emissions could have a serious impact on global emissions.

Analysis from the International Council on Clean Transport found that a typical electric car today produces less than half of the greenhouse gas emissions of an average European passenger car over its lifetime. Even better, these estimates are based on the current carbon intensity of electricity production. Further grid decarbonisation will only strengthen the case for electric vehicles.

“To make matters worse, lithium is also not the only battery ingredient with a dark side.”

So what’s the catch? Well, electric vehicles rely on battery technology, and lithium-ion batteries are the most commonly used. They have a higher energy density than other types, a low self-discharge rate (this is important for recharging), they don’t require regular maintenance, and they have a long lifespan. Unfortunately though, this is not the full story.

75% of the world’s lithium is found beneath the salt flats of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, known collectively as “the lithium triangle.” The first problem is water. The lithium triangle is one of the driest places on earth and the mining of lithium is incredibly water-intensive. Miners have to drill holes in the salt flats, pump them full of brine, leave the water to evaporate for months, and only then can lithium carbonate be extracted.

In Chile’s Salar de Atacama salt flat, lithium mining consumes 65% of the region’s water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this had led to severe water shortages and meant local farmers are struggling to grow crops and rear livestock.

There’s also always the chance of toxic chemicals getting into the water supply. In eastern Tibet, toxic chemicals from lithium mines have got into the Lichu River on multiple occasions, killing fish and farm animals, and poisoning the surrounding soil.

In a 2009 interview, Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from Chile, gave his damning verdict on the industry: “Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth. This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

Another problem is money. According to a Washington Post investigation, Minera Exar, a Canadian-Chilean lithium mining company, struck deals with six aboriginal communities in Argentina in order to build a new mine. The mine is believed to earn the company more than $250 million a year in sales. How much of this goes back to the local communities? According to the investigation, each community receives an annual payment of between $9,000 and $60,000.

“The ethics of electric vehicles is far more complicated than the expensive car adverts and glowing newspaper headlines would have us believe.”

Speaking of their frustration, Luisa Jorge, a leader in one of the six communities, said, “We know the lithium companies are taking millions of dollars from our lands, and we know they ought to give something back. But they’re not.”

Looking at the other end of a lithium battery’s lifetime, another problem is recycling. As it currently stands, the development of technology to recycle lithium batteries is falling behind the rapid rise in electric vehicles. In a few years' time, when more electric vehicles reach the end of their lives, this is set to cause a serious waste problem. If discarded battery packs end up in landfills, they run the risk of undergoing “thermal runaway,” and potentially causing explosions.

To make matters worse, lithium is also not the only battery ingredient with a dark side. Perhaps the darkest of all is cobalt, which is commonly used, alongside lithium, in the batteries of many electric vehicles.

More than half of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to a 2016 Amnesty International Report, 20% of the cobalt exported from the DRC comes from artisanal mines, in which miners use either their hands or very basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground, often for as little as $2 a day.

Worse still, UNICEF estimates 40,000 of the workers in these mines are children under the age of 18, with some as young as 7 years old. Cobalt mining also comes with serious health risks. Chronic exposure to dust containing cobalt can cause the potentially fatal lung disease “hard metal lung disease.” Many fatal accidents have also been caused by mines not being constructed or managed safely.

Clearly then, in the face of such widespread environmental damage and human rights abuses, the ethics of electric vehicles is far more complicated than the expensive car adverts and glowing newspaper headlines would have us believe.


Mountain View

Technological advances for an environmentally sustainable world

Given the need to reduce our emissions and move away from traditional petrol and diesel cars remains as pressing now as it was at the beginning of the article, what should we do now?

One suggestion is to develop new battery technology that relies on more common, and more environmentally friendly materials. Other researchers suggest optimising the design of batteries to enable automated battery disassembly to make recycling easier. In 2018, the London Metal Exchange proposed banning the sale of tainted cobalt, but this move was opposed by 14 different NGOs, on the grounds it would simply drive the trade underground.

For now though, the most important thing we can do is to remember that technological innovation done in the name of “sustainability” means nothing if marred by injustice of any form.