As the world steadily transitions away from fossil fuel-based electricity generation, electric vehicles (EVs) are finally making their way into the spotlight. In the first half of 2021 alone, 6.3 million EVs were sold despite the COVID-19 pandemic—with China, the European Union, and the United States comprising most of the global EV market.
This level of growth is enabled in part by organic demand for EVs and largely by government subsidies and policies that afford manufacturers a wide array of incentives while simultaneously lowering barriers of entry for consumers.
Compared to internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs)—which use fossil fuels—EVs comprise only around one percent of the total number of vehicles worldwide. However, this figure is projected to rise in the coming decades, especially as more governments make the switch to phasing out ICEVs. In fact, 24 countries agreed at last year’s COP26 to phase out ICEVs by 2040—an undertaking that would require EV production in the coming years to ramp up to never-before-seen scales.
However, since nearly all EVs require lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries to operate, the growing demand for EVs translates to an even greater demand for lithium, cobalt, manganese, and nickel—minerals that are used to make Li-ion batteries.
Although EVs are typically thought of as the future for green mobility, their reliance on these minerals means that their environmental footprint, from a production standpoint, can surpass even that of ICEVs.
Unlike smartphones, tablets, and laptops, which contain mere grams of lithium, EV batteries contain around eight kilograms of the mineral. The impact of the lithium mining required to meet this new demand cannot be ignored, especially considering how water-intensive it can be. To produce just one kilogram of lithium, it can take up to 400 liters of water. This means that it takes up to 3,200 liters of water to produce just one Li-ion EV battery—enough to fill 169 five-gallon water containers, which are commonly used in water dispensers.
By its very nature, lithium mining is invasive and poses the risk of contaminating groundwater and drinking water with high levels of toxic compounds and heavy metals. While newer lithium extraction methods consume less water and produce less waste, scaling these operations up to meet the demands of millions of Li-ion EV batteries still sacrifices the environment in the name of “green” solutions.
Even more concerning is cobalt, the vast majority of which is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Like lithium mining, cobalt mining pollutes the surrounding environment, leading to water, air, and soil contamination that can cause adverse health effects, especially when mining operations occur near farmland or populated areas. Congolese cobalt miners, who have chronic exposure to cobalt through inhalation and touch, can suffer from pulmonary fibrosis, asthma, and contact dermatitis in their line of work.
Whereas large mining companies run a majority of the cobalt mining operations in DRC, there remain small-scale artisanal mines that extract cobalt by hand and are run without any proper safety guidelines or equipment. Disturbingly, these artisanal mines often rely on child labor, and while EV companies like Tesla have vowed to help improve conditions in these mines, they are still far from safe.
However, even these large—and often international—mining companies have their own fair share of questionable safety practices and documented human rights abuse, all of which have led to the deaths of numerous Congolese miners over the years. This pattern of resource extraction from DRC by foreign powers has likewise brought up comparisons to colonial-era exploitation and sparked conversations about “green colonialism.”
While it would be easy to take all of the above at face value, we must also consider that EVs still output less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across their lifespan compared to ICEVs. Moreover, such a gap will only grow as global energy infrastructure decarbonizes and shifts to renewable sources. In addition, solid-state battery technology is also moving along at a rapid pace and could help drastically reduce our lithium and cobalt dependence.
In the fight against climate change, EVs can still play a crucial part in lessening overall GHG emissions. However, we must also confront the reality that EVs are not the end-all-be-all for eco-friendly transportation. EVs are still vehicles—that is, despite allowing the greatest freedom of movement, they have limited occupancy and are thus inherently inefficient.
If we truly want decongested cities with skies free of smog from gasoline and diesel engines, we should focus on building modern mass transit systems that run off renewable energy alongside EVs. Not everyone wants to, or indeed has the financial ability to buy a car. Before we move forward, we must first look back and see if we’re leaving anyone behind. A green future is only worth living in if it’s for all of us.