Earth Matters: The conundrum of the electric car

Earth Matters: The conundrum of the electric car

By Doug Wood

Electric cars are all the rage these days. Our streets are filled with Teslas, BMW i4s, Priuses and Polestars.

It’s all part of the green revolution, as our society moves away from burning fossil fuels to a more sustainable future. But while electric vehicles may seem like a great answer to our energy needs here at home, their production carries a hefty environmental and social justice price tag halfway around the world.

Let’s start with the clever alchemy that allows an EV to travel silently down the road. In the case of a moderate-sized EV, that’s a giant battery weighing almost a ton. (Actually, the battery is made up of lots of individual cells, but I’m keeping this simple to make a point.) Included in this giant battery is about 30 pounds of cobalt, 40 pounds of manganese, 60 pounds of nickel, 25 pounds of lithium, 200 pounds of copper, and several hundred pounds of other materials like aluminum, steel, and, of course, plastic.

If you follow international news and are concerned about human rights, you already know that the Congo is the primary supplier of cobalt. And you may also know that the environmental and worker protection laws in the Congo aren’t the strongest. As a result, mining for cobalt is associated with widespread habitat destruction and pollution, including water and soil contamination.

The majority of cobalt mining and processing is done by large international mining companies, mostly Chinese. But a significant portion is produced by “artisanal mining,” which is a nice way of saying local workers, including children, are climbing deep down hand-dug shafts and chipping away at the embedded rock.

According to Siddharth Kara, a fellow at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and author of “Cobalt Red,” “Cobalt is toxic to touch and breathe — and there are hundreds of thousands of poor Congolese people touching and breathing it day in and day out. Young mothers with babies strapped to their backs, all breathing in this toxic cobalt dust.”

The average cobalt miner in the Congo makes less than $8 a day for their work. Which means that he or she would have to save every penny in earnings for more than 25 years to be able to afford the vehicle which depends on that labor to make it go.

Partly because of the issues surrounding cobalt’s production, manufacturers are increasingly turning to manganese for battery chemistry because of its lower cost, increased supply reliability and improved performance. But once again, the thorny matters of environmental degradation and worker exploitation have reared their ugly heads.

Scientific research demonstrates that high-level exposure to manganese can be toxic, causing a wide array of neurological problems.  In South Africa, home to the world’s largest reserves of manganese, workers report symptoms including memory loss, loss of muscle coordination and other symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease.

You might think that the EV manufacturers would find a way to use at least some of their astronomical profits to improve the lives of the workers whose labor supplies the critical elements that make electric vehicles go, but apparently the profit motive is stronger than the altruistic motive. Maybe a shareholder initiative is in their future?

And before we leave the electric car issue, let’s remember that the energy to recharge those giant batteries needs to come from somewhere. In New York, the power plants that account for almost three-fifths of New York’s generating capacity are fueled by natural gas. While the state has set ambitious targets for future generations to meet (100% renewable energy by 2040, a mere 16 years away), the fact is that right now, a lot of the power being used to charge our EV batteries is coming from burning fossil fuels.

As we consider the quandary of the electric car, we might also wonder what ever happened to the 50 mile-per-gallon car? It wasn’t that long ago that car manufacturers competed on the basis of the mileage efficiency of their fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Today, European manufacturers make cars that routinely achieve 45 miles a gallon, while many Japanese cars get 50. Here in America, we love our giant SUVs, which, on a good day, achieve about 18 miles a gallon. It’s ironic to hear people complain about the price of gas while they fill the tank of their giant gas guzzler.

As with many environmental issues, when it comes to which car is best, there is no perfect answer. We probably could have done better for the world’s environment by simply making our fossil-fueled vehicles much more efficient and using them less frequently while we figure out a way to make electric vehicles that don’t carry a heavy environmental and social justice price tag. Sustainable should mean sustainable for everyone.

No posts to display


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here