Darker side of electric cars in spotlight

While EV emissions are good news for the planet the materials used to produce them are rasing concerns

Katanga Mining's copper-cobalt mine in Democratic Republic. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
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Momentum is fast building behind electric vehicles as countries round the world move to reduce use of petrol and diesel for transport.

This summer France and the UK said they would ban combustion engines by 2040 and China has said it is studying such a move.

Volvo, now a Swedish-Chinese company, says every car it launches from 2019 will be either fully or partly electric. Volvo’s announcement this year was greeted as the first serious challenge to Tesla, the Californian electric car maker, from mainstream marques.

Analysts at UBS expect global sales of electric vehicles in 2025 to reach 14.2 million units, or 13.7 per cent of the total, compared with under 1 million units, or less than 1 per cent, in 2017.

This month, Germany’s BMW, Daimler and VW joined up with Ford to form a joint venture to open 400 charging stations across Europe. Such a charging network would reduce a lot of the anxiety that consumers have about buying electric cars.

But the push to electrification is causing some concern. There is a dark side to the electric vehicle revolution.

Every electric vehicle (EV) will have a significant environmental impact in production – often greater than the impact of making a car with a combustion engine, experts say. In particular, EVs will require a huge rise in the raw materials needed to create the batteries and related hardware.

One recent study by scientists in Norway has found that in some circumstances electric cars can have a greater impact on global warming than conventional cars. Electric cars are only as green as the power that supplies them and, in many parts of the world, most electricity is still derived from fossil fuels.

Guillaume Majeau-Bettez, one of the authors of the report from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says he was shocked and disappointed by the study’s findings. "The electric car has great potential for improvement, but ultimately what will make it a success or failure from an environmental standpoint is how much we can clean up our electricity grid - both for the electricity you use when you drive your car, and for the electricity used for producing the car."

Mining companies are positioning themselves to meet the increased need for raw materials that include lithium from Australia and Chile, cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo and nickel from Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Russia and the Philippines.

Environmentalists are alarmed by the mines and smelters needed to supply the electric vehicle industry. The Philippines has closed or suspended 17 nickel mines this year because of environmental concerns.

In Columbia, residents who live near the Cerro Matoso nickel mine, which spun-off from BHP Billiton in 2015, have reported elevated rates of birth deformities and respiratory problems associated with exposure to pollution generated by nickel mining and smelting.

UBS estimates that the combined production of pure EVs and plug-in hybrid EVs will mean a 12-fold increase in battery power will be needed by 2025.

This will boost global cobalt demand for plug-in vehicles at an average rate of around 20 per cent per annum for the next five years. Lithium demand is also set to rise by 16 per cent per year over the course of the next decade, quadrupling by 2025 to 750,000 tonnes. As a result, prices of key commodities associated with making batteries have exploded.

While demand for the minerals is growing, concerns are accelerating over the environmental footprint of the vast processing plants that are required to turn rare earth elements into materials that are needed in electric vehicles. Many of these are in located China, where environmental standards are low and difficult to monitor.


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Most of the raw materials in an electric vehicle battery are used in the cathode, the electrode that provides electricity when the battery is discharging. “Processing lithium is not so much of a problem – because of where the materials are sourced from [Australia and Chile], " says David Merriman, the deputy division manager at the metals consultancy Roskill. "However, cobalt - which goes into the cathode in the battery - is causing a lot of concern. Much of it is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo so there are a lot of conflict mineral issues and child-labour issues. Downstream users are having to look at this closely.”

Graphite, another rare earth used in lithium ion batteries, is mostly produced and consumed in China. Mr Merriman says there are also concerns over the way this rare earth is mined, although the industry is now seeing more non-Chinese mine operators starting up, which may help to raise standards.

One of the problems with the surge in demand for metals for batteries is that increasingly the capacity for these minerals is coming from new and emerging mining companies, who may not have the same sustainability and responsibility standards as established miners.

The International Centre for Metals and Mining, based in London, is a lobbying organisation for the world’s biggest miners and has companies such as BHP, AngloAmerican and Barrick Gold as members. Codelco, the world’s largest copper miner, which announced this nonth that it is to mine lithium in Chile, is another member.

John Atherton, ICMM's director - health, safety and product stewardship, admits that there are problem areas in the world where rare metals are mined. “Regarding China, there are large areas where we don’t know what is going on and in other territories there are difficulties with governance and sometimes a clash between the approach of large-scale and small-scale miners.”

However, he insists that members of organisations such as ICMM, which has a sustainability framework that its members must follow, do genuinely want to curb their environmental impact. “Our members do have the skills to minimise impact and the amount of innovation that is going on means that there is a constant improvement, both in company performance and in the management of environmental risk and social risk,” Mr Atherton says.

He argues that an increasing dialogue between the downstream users of the metals – the car makers and battery manufacturers – means that new entrants into metals mining will be scrutinised and will need to prove themselves responsible, if they are to be part of an international supply chain.

Areeba Hamid, a senior Greenpeace clean air campaigner, says: “More electric cars will increase demand for lithium and cobalt, but this doesn’t have to mean environmental damage or human rights abuses. Companies need to fully commit to and resource responsible supply chain oversight and policies to ensure they don’t mine in ecologically important, vulnerable areas or encroach on local people’s rights and livelihoods.”

Greenpeace says efforts to reduce the price of EVs should focus on improving technology and economies of scale, not through the use of cheap labour or lower mining standards.

Down the line, to offset the environmental impact of mining, there will also need to be a large build-out in recycling facilities to meet the first wave of electric vehicles, analysts say. Currently more than 90 per cent of lead-acid batteries used in conventional petrol-engine cars are recycled, versus less than 5 per cent of lithium-ion batteries. An estimated 11 million tonnes of spent lithium-ion battery packs will be discarded between now and 2030, according to Canada-based Li-Cycle, a recycler of batteries.

Companies such as Belgium-based Umicore have already started to recycle lithium-ion batteries and are investing in expanding its capacity. Umicore expects huge volumes of spent batteries to start coming on to the market for recycling from around 2025.

So are consumers kidding themselves that buying an electric vehicle is “good” for the environment?

“There are two sides to the story: although emissions are better from an electric vehicle there is still an environmental impact at the mining and [power] generation stage," says Mr Merriman. "The good news is that that impact is improving.” And the picture will get better across Europe and in the US, as more electricity generation comes from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels.

Nissan, which builds its first mass-market electric car the Leaf in the UK, says it monitors its supply chain carefully to assess whether the mineral resources contained in materials or components used to manufacture its products have any harmful social effects, such as on human rights or the environment. “When there are concerns about the minerals being used, Nissan actively works to end that use,” a spokesman says.

Nissan is also working on battery recycling and has developed xStorage, which gives electric vehicle batteries a second life. The battery can be reused in homes and businesses as an energy storage unit, which the homeowner can control.

Nissan’s efforts show that manufacturers are aware that they will have to work hard to make electric vehicles more desirable and greener, despite governments around the world giving them a helping hand.

But it is Ms Hamid who explains why electric vehicles can only reduce, rather than eliminate, the impact on the environment. “To tackle both air pollution and climate change we will also need to drive less altogether and opt for walking or cycling instead, as well as improved public transport," she says.

"It is simply not sustainable to exchange every car on the road today with an electric car."