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‘Greener’ vehicles but at what cost? The dark side of electric biking

Minster Law

We are led to believe that electric vehicles will pave the way to a climate-saving net zero future, steering drivers away from fossil fuels.  But things are not quite as they may seem on the surface.  These ‘greener’ vehicles come at a cost and the rocketing growth for electrification has a dark side.

In our recent survey of biker attitudes towards electric bikes, many respondents expressed that producing, charging, and disposing of batteries is no more beneficial to the environment than emissions from bikes or cars with an internal combustion engine, not to mention the human rights issues that have been uncovered.

“The so called “green” thing is utter rubbish, producing the batteries, charging the batteries and disposal of the batteries is no more beneficial to the environment than ICE bikes or cars.” 

So what is the environmental and human cost of mining the necessary raw materials to keep up with the ever-increasing push to switch to electric vehicles?

The raw materials used in the manufacture of batteries – lithium, cobalt and nickel are found in a limited number of countries. As the uptake of electric vehicles increases across the globe, the demand for these raw materials is increasing significantly and production levels will need to be scaled up.

The Faraday Institute estimates that global lithium production will need to quadruple and global cobalt production will need to double to fulfil this growing demand over the coming years.

Aside from the risks around the supply chain and the security of future supply, it is the process of mining these materials that has raised concerns about the environmental damage and harm to those people involved in mining.

A United Nations report published in 2021 – Powering Change: Principles for Businesses and Governments in the Battery Value Chain’highlighted some of the darker sides of electric vehicles and the ethical questions raised by the mining of lithium.

Lithium is a major constituent of batteries used in electric vehicles.  Every battery pack requires several kilograms of the material. The majority (58%) of lithium comes from Chile, where the UN says in some areas 65% of the local water supply is used in lithium and other mining activities. The report warns that this leads to “water scarcity and an increasingly erratic water supply” which is impacting farming and access to water in local communities.

An earlier Amnesty International report in 2016 exposed the consequences of mining cobalt – the silvery-blue mineral used in rechargeable batteries.  It is a strategic mineral in our drive to decarbonise and the rechargeable battery market is the biggest driver of demand for cobalt.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) sits on an estimated 3.4 million tonnes of cobalt and supplies more than 60% of the world’s demand (SMMT 2020 UK Automotive Sustainability Report).

It is reported that 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, with non-existent working regulations.

In these mines, child labour is widespread.  Children as young as three learn to pick out the purest ore from the rock whilst women wash raw mining material, which is often full of toxic metals and, in some cases, mildly radioactive. Thousands of children work “in extremely dangerous conditions, with inadequate safety equipment, for very little money” despite being exposed to physical dangers, as well as “psychological violations and abuse”.

Other issues in the cobalt mines include sulfuric acid build-up in abandoned mines, which can pollute local water supplies, while miners risk breathing in uranium dust when digging.

In the words of Mark Dummett, Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues Programme:

“While technologies like electric vehicles are essential for shifting away from fossil fuels, the battery revolution carries its own risks for human rights and the planet.

“We are calling on businesses at all stages of the battery supply chain to do their bit to ensure they are truly powering change.”

Many manufacturers of electric vehicles have tried to address the issue and made promises to clean up their supply chain.  The outcry over working conditions in the Congo has led industry players to found the Fair Cobalt Alliance, an organisation that, among other things, supports small-scale mining with safety equipment and clean water.  But there is still much scepticism around any real influence these partnerships really have.

The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has adopted policies that forbid the use of children for dangerous work and have pledged to eliminate child labour from the mines by 2025.  There seems to be no real evidence of this having any impact.

The future – steps needed to manufacture batteries sustainably and ethically

The UN report: Commodities at a glance: Special issue on strategic battery raw materials published in 2020 highlights the importance of sourcing and producing raw materials for the manufacture of batteries sustainably.   It also highlights the importance of research into battery technologies that depend less on these raw materials (e.g. the use of silicon) and using processes that help to control the negative environmental impact of mining.

Improving recycling rates of spent batteries could contribute to lower costs of production and lessen the impact on the environment.

It has been estimated that recycling of cobalt could generate an additional 40,000 tonnes of cobalt globally and 6,000 tonnes in Europe per annum by 2030 (source Faraday Institution).  For comparison it is estimated that 120,000 tonnes of cobalt will be required each year by 2030.

However, because EV sales are still relatively low, battery recycling is unlikely to contribute as a significant source of raw materials before 2030.

The UK is playing a small part and has capacity to refine and produce critical raw materials needed for the UK EV market, for example, Cornish lithium. However, it still has a way to go to meet raw material demand for mass market EV production.

Clearly as things stand there will be no EV revolution without Congo’s cobalt or Chile’s lithium, so governments and manufacturers need to keep pushing to ensure the vital raw materials are produced free from workers’ exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental harm.

Sources and further reading

UN Report: Commodities at a glance

RAID report The road to ruin

Faraday Institution The gold rush of the 21st century

Autotrader:  Understanding the sustainability of electric cars

SMMT 2020 UK Automotive sustainability report

Amnesty Action needed to clean up battery industry

The Dark side of Congo’s cobalt rush