The dark side of electric cars – part one.

The rise of electric cars:
Tesla Motors founded back in 2003, was another start-up aiming to rid the world of petroleum-powered vehicles. It released the ‘Roadster’ in 2008 with a range of 394 kilometres (245 miles) and was supposedly the first completely electric vehicle. Many were sceptical that the company would survive, even the CEO himself. Elon Musk said the company at one stage was a month away from bankruptcy.

Fast forward to today, Tesla is worth over $1 trillion and is ranked one of the most valuable car companies in history. Besides Tesla, the electric car market has boomed over recent years. In China, there are currently 4.5 million on the road, whilst in 2020 Europe recorded its largest yearly increase, reaching 3.2 million. Around the globe, electric car sales rose 70% in 2020. The transition to a ‘carbon-free’ world is coming far quicker than expected. BBC comments, “General Motors says it will make only electric vehicles by 2035” and Volkswagen, “70% of its sales will be electric by 2030.”

Electric car companies, environmental activists, governments, administrations and even general car companies have raised environmental concerns regarding petroleum/diesel vehicles. The world is clearly transitioning to an electric future, a future free of pollution, mining, deforestation, inequality and political tension. At least that’s what we thought…

Rare metals – introduction:
According to Guillaume Pitron, rare metals are the following: “light and heavy rare-earth elements, germanium, tungsten, antimony, niobium, beryllium, gallium, cobalt, vanadium, tantalum” among many others. Annually, only 160,000 tonnes of rare metals are mined globally. They have very unique physicochemical properties that are vital to modern products, without them a computer would still be the size of a room.
Rare metals are considerably more expensive than non-rare metals. A single kilogram of gallium costs 9,000 times more than the same amount of iron! Rare metals are far more expensive, more difficult to mine and are also essential to future technologies – smartphones, fluorescent lighting, electric cars etc.

Our rare metals addiction:
When discussing rare metals, look no further than Baotou, a city located in Inner Mongolia with a metropolitan population of 2.26 million people. The Bayan Obo Mining District, known as the ‘Hometown of Rare Earth[s]’ is the production hub of over half of all the rare metals required for advanced technologies the world now and in the future will rely on. The world already consumes well over 2 billion tonnes of metals every year, the equivalent of 500 Eiffel Towers a day! In Baotou, a reporter reveals, “lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge”. That sludge is the by-product of excessive mining for technologies like electric cars. “Even before getting to the toxic lake, the environmental impact the rare earth industry has had on the city is painfully clear.” Others who have also visited Baotou like Guillaume Pitron claim, “I was looking at 10 square kilometres of toxic effluent, which occasionally flows into the Yellow River”. Currently, 80% of the Yellow River is chronically polluted with four billion tonnes of wastewater discarded into the river annually. For context, that’s 10% of the river’s volume!

Beyond Baotou lies other mining hubs like Jiangxi, surrounded by forests and one of the largest rare metal mines on earth. Wang Jing, a former Chinese miner states, “the chemicals used for refining the minerals were poured straight into the ground”. Furthermore, the refining process to purify the metals has equal consequences. Hydrochloric and sulphuric acids used in the purifying process are dumped into local streams, so much that “it was impossible for anything to grow”.
This purifying process requires 200 cubic litres of water for a single tonne of metal! According to Circle Economy, the world in 2019 consumed 3.2 billion tonnes of metal. This would require 640 billion cubic litres of water annually just for purifying metals. According to Jaya Nayar, “electric car[s] requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car”.
This issue will only worsen. Electric cars, smartphones, energy-efficient lightbulbs and more all require huge amounts of rare metals. By 2035, germanium demand is set to double, palladium to quintuple and tantalum quadruple. Whilst others like scandium are set to increase nine-fold and cobalt twenty-four-fold!

In 2006, 60 mining companies producing Indium were caught dumping tonnes of chemicals into the Xiang River, Hunan. This massively contaminated local drinking water. Whilst in Ganzhou, tungsten miners polluted the Yangtze river as a solution to disposing of on-site waste. An anonymous Chinese journalist claimed, “[m]en and women, wearing no more than basic face masks, work in areas thick with black particles and acid fumes”.

Rare metal mining beyond China:
This issue extends well beyond China. The mining and refining of rare metals concern all countries that participate in it. Countries like Brazil, Vietnam, Chile and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to name a few. In the DRC, thousands of miners work tirelessly all day with “spades and picks” to dig up cobalt, a metal necessary for electric car batteries. In 2014 a man in the DRC discovered cobalt beneath his property and began digging tunnels beneath local houses. According to the World Bank, 3/4 of the country’s population lives on less than $2.63 AUD ($2 USD) a day, making financial issues a huge problem. Cases of mining underneath houses have ignited community tension and sparked fury amongst the people.
In addition to community issues and environmental impacts, the lack of health and safety regulations applied in the mines by the DRC government has resulted in unsanitary practices. Research by Congolese doctors revealed cobalt concentration in the communities urine was 43 times higher than in controlled samples!

The lithium triangle, a region rich in lithium reserves, is located along the borders of Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. In this region, agricultural land and communities have been robbed of most water supply because of lithium mining and the excessive water used in the process. In a region of Chile called ‘Salar de Atacama‘, mining companies have consumed 65% of the region’s water. In 2017, rare metal mining companies from Latin America met in Chile to discuss “a mining sector that would be responsible and compliant with international ecological standards”. In the same year, 40,000 children were estimated to be working for mining companies and 33 indigenous communities in the DRC were fighting “against lithium operations” on their indigenous land.

The environmental, ethical and public health dilemmas regarding rare metal mining are disturbingly clear. From Kazakhstan to India, Russia to Brazil and Vietnam to the Philippines, it appears the world’s demand for electric cars is silencing the pain felt by those helping make them.

Increased energy demand:
According to Forbes, 84% of the world’s energy is still sourced from fossil fuels like coal. Since the Kyoto protocol back in 1997 which aimed to phase out fossil fuels, our annual emissions have steadily increased by 50%. Mission failed.
This is another issue to consider when measuring an electric car’s environmental footprint; where does the energy need come from? As the Guardian states, “electric cars are only as clean as their power supply”. In Australia, coal contributes to 2.8% of annual emissions. According to Guillaume Pitron, turning every car electric will be 3 to 4 times more energy-intensive than if all were run off petroleum. In countries like Norway and Iceland where most of the energy comes from hydropower, the environmental effect would be much less. Conversely, China generates nearly 70% of its power from coal, creating an environmental effect that would undoubtedly make up for countries like Norway.

The New York Times says, “if every American switched over to an electric passenger vehicle, analysts have estimated, the United States could end up using roughly 25 percent more electricity than it does today”. That would require a serious national grid upgrade and far more energy stations. All of which would also require more metal.

Due to the accelerating rare metals demand for electric vehicles, rainforests are being destroyed at staggering speeds. Rainforest rescue states, “electric vehicles are stealth rainforest killers!” In countries like the Philippines, Brazil and Indonesia – helping extract vast cobalt, nickel and magnesium deposits – dense forests are being obliterated.
The Rio Tuba mine, located in the Philippines, is home to large quantities of nickel supply. As demand soars, plans are underway to expand operations from 10.35 square kilometres (4 square miles) to 36.26 square kilometres (14 square miles), increasing the number of machinery and tools through the forest landscape. Mining operations located in the Philippines, Palawan are helping provide the necessary metals for lithium-ion batteries in Tesla and Toyota vehicles across the globe. Tesla CEO, Elon Musk in 2020 stated, “Tesla will give you [nickel miners] a giant contract for a long period of time if you mine nickel efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way”. What does ‘environmentally sensitive mining’ even look like, and does it resemble the Rio Tuba mine where current Tesla nickel comes from?
According to BBC News, the development of larger operations could increase toxic waste runoff into the environment, poisoning soil and water. Not to forget the local population nearby, an environmental lawyer in Palawan claims, “what is at stake is the life and survival of the people in the community”. The likely expansion of the mine will excavate an estimated 9,000 acres of “ancient rainforest”.

Beyond the Philippines, deforestation due to electric vehicles is rising throughout other countries like Indonesia. Whilst Indonesia did agree to sign the ‘Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use’, the hike in rare metal mining places this agreement on a knife’s edge. In 2019, of the 11, 700 square kilometres of deforestation recorded in Indonesia, 91.4% was victim to “commodity-driven deforestation“.
Even the electric vehicle manufacturing plants such as the Tesla Gigafactory 4 have ignited further deforestation activity. In Berlin, the Tesla Gigafactory has acquired a 300-hectare plot of land located in the countryside for its construction. According to electrek, “Tesla will have to cut down a significant number of trees since the land is basically in the forest”.
The boom in electric vehicles now and in the future comes with a significant ecological and public health cost, despite their green image.

Released on the 6th of May 2022. -KJDJ
To view part two, click here.

One thought on “The dark side of electric cars – part one.

  1. Excellent piece . . . It is long overdue that society learn the evils of ‘Clean Green’ energy. As a staunch Naturalist I have been beating this drum for years. Our political leaders and our Media representatives Must hear this lesson and get on board. Thank you for your excellent work ! You may want to read My papers on related subjects . . .

    Liked by 1 person

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