We don't need more (electric) cars, we need less

Who’s paying the “green” bill for the electric car?

© Matjaz Krivič


The large Swiss bank UBS predicts that there will be 16.5 million electric cars sold in 2025, more than a thirteenfold of 2017’s sales. Governments stimulate this revolution to achieve their climate goals: in Belgium an electric company car is 120% tax-deductible. However, the drawbacks concerning this seemingly green technology, escape our attention.

An electric car’s lithium-ion battery contains dozens of resources, which aren’t inexhaustible: lithium, cobalt, rare-earth metals, nickel, graphite… Do people in the exploitation areas of these resources also profit from this strongly increased demand? Or do they pay the price, in order to give us a green conscience? According to Nick Meynen, author of Frontlijnen (a book on ecological sgtruggles on the frontlines of today’s global economy), it’s the latter: ‘In the Andean countries, the increase of the number of environmental conflicts is clearly directly proportional with the increase of mining activities.’

‘Believing that mining has become more sustainable than before, is wishful thinking’

‘Believing that mining has become more sustainable than before, is wishful thinking’, says Meynen. ‘Indeed, nowadays there are consultation meetings for the affected communities to have their say. But in practice, this mostly comes down to propaganda, deception and even worse. There’s no participation in the decision-making at all. It remains a process that usually makes rich actors richer, while the affected communities become even more marginalized.’

Raf Custers, author of the book Grondstoffenjagers (specifically on the extractive industries and their devastating impact on local communities and even national economies), agrees with Meynen: ‘People are generally worse off with a mine in their area. Industrial mining hardly creates any jobs and multinationals invariably fly in expats for the upper echelons. Furthermore, the mines obtain an area under concession, where after scaring everyone away, they keep everyone out. That’s why you get more territorial conflicts between the community and the owner of the mine.’

Exploitation and abuses 

An electric car battery contains up to 8 kilos of cobalt, predominantly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. While Congo is estimated to possess half of the global cobalt stock and the it produces two-thirds of the world’s cobalt, it’s one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, a classic victim of the resource curse.

After business went downhill for the state mine Gécamines, because of mismanagement in the 1990s, Congo started targeting foreign investors and privatising its mines. Even though this often conflicts directly with the interests of development countries and their populations, it’s a worldwide trend encouraged by the World Bank. Consequently, apart from losing valuable resources which could be used for their own development, countries also lose tax income.

The Paradise Papers revealed that mining giant Glencore, which produces about one-third of the global cobalt on the market, evaded paying millions of taxes, also in Congo. Moreover, even the infrastructure created by the mines often doesn’t benefit the local population: two thousand kilometers of high-voltage lines were installed for the Congolese mines, without intermediate stations to provide electricity for the local population’, writes Custers in Grondstoffenjagers.

‘I often spend 24 hours in the tunnels. I arrive in the morning and leave the following morning.’

Many employees who lost their job in the state mines, sought refuge in small-scale and often illegal artisanal mines. In the report This Is What We Die for, Amnesty International and Afrewatch outline the abuses in such cobalt mines in Congo’s southern province Katanga. ‘I often spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrive in the morning and leave the following morning’, says Paul, who started to work in the mines when he was twelve.

He is one of the many children who work in dangerous conditions there. While the dust can cause a deadly lung disease, workers don’t have protective clothing. Though the cobalt price has tripled in the past year and a half, small-scale miners don’t reap the benefits: a twelve hour working day earns them one or two dollars.

‘Those are desperate situations. It’s undeclared exploitation for the benefit of very big companies,’ says Custers. Like the cobalt of industrial mines, the cobalt from informal mining is brought to warehouses or refineries and thus enters the supply chain of international companies and ultimately ends up in our smartphones and electric cars.

More opportunities

The Belgian Umicore is one of the most important players in the extraction of battery materials for electric cars. According to the Belgian newspaper De Tijd, Umicore controls 20 to 25% of the worldwide cobalt production, a figure the company doesn’t want to confirm. Umicore refused an interview with MO* ‘because of agenda problems and priorities’. In other media, Umicore declared that it doesn’t work with informal cobalt mines, due to the bad working conditions there.

Yet precisely those mines, provided the problems would be dealt with, could provide opportunities for the local population since they offer much more employment than industrial mines. That view is shared by Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, striving for the creation of a fair smartphone: ‘Tons of people work in artisanal mines all over the world. Improving their working conditions, could have a gigantic impact on their lives’, says spokesperson Fabian Hühne.

Fairphone therefore tries to collaborate with such small mines: ‘Most producers look at the supply chain top-down, but that makes it impossible to determine which mine your material comes from and under what circumstances it was mined. So we have a bottom-up approach and select mines where we improve the working conditions’, says Hühne.

Millions of liters of water

The hunt for lithium is on as well, since the battery of an electric car can contain up to 50 kilos of lithium. A resource primarily extracted from the salt lakes of the Andes mountains, where the local population makes a living out of quinoa farming and llamas. Although Chile and Argentine are the biggest producers, the Bolivian salt flat Salar de Uyuni is supposed to contain the largest supply of lithium in the world. President Evo Morales wants to use lithium as a ticket out of poverty for Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Not by attracting international investors, but by doing most of the lithium mining and processing themselves and by using the profit for their own development. Nevertheless, Morales too is faced with opposition from indigenous groups, who feel that decisions are being taken without consulting them. Such mining projects divide communities and families all over the world: supporters hope for extra employment, while opponents fear for the survival of their way of life and the local environment.

That’s also the case in Bolivia, where opponents fear that the water-intensive lithium mining will exacerbate the existing water shortage. The lithium mine Sales de Jujuy in Argentina for example consumes more than 7 million liters of water a day. According to the mining companies that’s not problematic, since it’s impotable brine being pumped up from under the salt crust.

However, too little is known about the salt lakes to estimate the potential impact on their fragile ecosystem. Apart from that, worries arise concerning the waste management of the mines: ‘The residue contains high concentrations of minerals and chemical components to separate the substances from each other, but there’s never a clear answer as to where the residue ends up’, says Custers.

‘The money of the lithium mine goes to Bolivia, but not necessarily to the surrounding communities themselves.’

Opponents of the lithium mine in Bolivia fear that their drinking water and the survival of their quinoa farming and llamas are in danger. Furthermore, the Salar de Uyuni is one of the most important tourist attractions, so the degradation of the salt flat would amount to a loss of income. ‘The money goes to Bolivia, but not necessarily to the communities themselves. Apparently even a revolutionary leader who keeps much more of the resource profits inside the country, cannot avoid mining conflicts with indigenous communities,’ says Meynen.

In Argentina too, part of the indigenous population feels left out. The newspaper The Washington Post could look into contracts in which a new lithium mine, Minera Exar, promises to share a small part of the profits with the local population once it’s operational. However, the leaders of the concerned communities turned out not to be aware of that at all.

© Matjaz Krivič


Village of death

Another important component for electric cars are the rare-earth metals which, contrary to what their name suggests, are present everywhere in the earth’s crust. However, their concentration is usually not high enough to make extraction profitable. 95 percent of the rare-earth metals are being produced in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China. Next to profits their extraction also brings about a dangerous level of pollution, since rare-earth metal deposits usually also contain the radioactive elements uranium and thorium.

The villagers near the Chinese city Baotou, where the rare-earth metals are being processed, saw their living environment turn from paradise to hell. The fields, the green hills and the livestock are nowhere to be seen anymore. ‘We knew something was wrong when at the end of the 1980s the trees and flowers bloomed, but didn’t bear any fruits. Later, they stopped growing altogether’, says an inhabitant of the village Dalahai in the Beijing Review.

The village was nicknamed “the village of death”, because 66 villagers died from cancer between 1993 and 2005, according to a study by the local environmental services. The concentration of radioactive thorium turned out to be 36 times higher in the soil of the village, than in the rest of Baotou’s surroundings.

Processing one ton of rare-earth metals produces 2000 tons of toxic waste. In Baotou, the wastewater is dumped into a ten square kilometer lake, although ‘lake’ is not a suitable name for the plain of black, toxic sludge, which polluted the soil and the groundwater in the environment. Furthermore, both during the extraction and the processing of rare-earth metals, which runs on coal, lots of CO2 is released. Due to the large-scale pollution, local farmers lost their livelihoods; they are still awaiting decent compensation.

Less extraction, more fairness

According to Nick Meynen and Raf Custers, less extraction is key to solving the problems: ‘Politics follow the industry without questioning whether it’s a good evolution. Instead of opting for public transport, in which electric driving can also play its part, they just shift the problem. They only look at one link in the chain, while they pretend not to see the rest,’ says Custers.

‘If by 2025, one-third of the sold vehicles needs to be electric, imagine the massive amount of materials required for the production. Whether you’re stuck in a traffic jam with a diesel car or an electric car, it amounts to the same thing: you are standing still’, says Custers. ‘Furthermore, the electricity for electric cars is often produced by coal or nuclear plants.’

According to some studies, a large electric car would emit more CO2 than a smaller conventional one, if you take everything in consideration.

Therefore and also because the production of batteries is so polluting, some studies state that a large electric car will emit more CO2 than a small conventional car over its full lifespan. According to Custers, industrial companies will not readily opt for more sustainable extraction. ‘The sneaky thing about the industrial enterprises’ good resolutions is that they promise to clean up their supply chain, but then they never really do because it conflicts with their profit principles.’

Still, the example of Fairphone demonstrates that part of the consumers are willing to pay more for a product with a fairer supply chain: ‘If you inform people about the problems, they want something to change. I think it’s an important signal for each producer that improving their supply chain and informing people, allows them to tap into a market’, says Hühne.

Translated by Andy Furniere

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