Are EVs really so green?

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EV charging points, but will we ever see enough in Rye

A short while ago I wrote an opinion piece on electric vehicles and the availability of charging points, in particular around Rye.  A number of our readers left interesting comments representing both sides of the “green” argument.

Since then, there has been no change in charging points for Rye and the one hotel that wants to install them for their customers is apparently being delayed by bureaucracy and red tape. We have not heard from East Sussex County Council on the question of kerbside chargers.

It seems certain, at least at this rate, that the demand for electric vehicles is going to be stifled by the inability to recharge them at the driver’s convenience; (and this is quite apart from the initial expense of the vehicle and the ridiculously low mileage – by modern standards – that many of them will do between charges).

Another question is, just how green are these electric vehicles? The only difference between them and others powered by the internal combustion engine, is that the former have a big battery and electric motor. Other than that, the construction is more or less similar, so there is no green benefit in the manufacture of the body, chassis, running gear and other components. The big advantage, we are told, is that they no longer burn fossil fuels and there are no harmful emissions.

But – and it is a big but – the lithium-ion batteries contain not fossil fuels, but minerals such as lithium and cobalt, found only in certain parts of the world and which have to be dug out of the ground. Although lithium can also be obtained from some brine pools.

Traditional lithium mines can operate 30 – 40 dump trucks of 40 tons capacity each, together with many digging and excavating machines. The dump trucks alone will use some 17.5 million gallons of diesel on top of the fuel used to excavate the lithium carrying ore. On top of that again is the cost (and amount of fossil fuel) in transporting and processing. Eco-friendly? Hardly. In fairness, it has to be said that the operators of some of these mines are looking at better and more eco-friendly ways of extraction, however it still has to be processed and transported and, like oil, it is a finite resource that one day will run out.

Child labour in cobalt mines

Another mineral used is cobalt. By far the largest source is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo – 100,000 tonnes in 2020, accounting for 70% of world production. China has a huge investment in the Congo cobalt production. The concern here is not only the environmental damage being caused by vast mines and the logistics to run them, but also that so much is in the hands of a potentially unfriendly power, whose actions could well dictate both the price of batteries and even the ability of companies outside China to be able to produce them at all. It should also be noted that the second largest producer, albeit with only 6,000 tonnes in 2020, is Russia.

The other factor with cobalt is that up to 30% (the precise figure is unclear) of the Congo’s production is from unofficial artisanal mines where human rights abuses are common and where children are regularly used to burrow down deep holes too small for an adult, resulting in many child injuries and deaths. Blood cobalt is the name often given to the product of these mines, but it still goes into batteries.

And one final fact: it takes approximately 7-10 years for an electric vehicle to save enough in emissions to cover the environmental damage in its manufacture – ie to become carbon neutral. At the end of that time a great many batteries will need replacing and, often, so will the vehicles themselves. And so the eco-cycle begins again without any real advantage to the future of our planet.

Image Credits: Kevin McCarthy , Facebook .

3 COMMENTS

  1. As always, I value the author’s articles, as they challenge what he perceives as the ‘green agenda’. In fact, he is looking at an agenda that is being rolled out by those in favour of ‘business as usual’. No environmentalist I have spoken to believes that electric vehicles are ‘the answer’. They are at best an incremental improvement on fossil fuel powered cars, but still part of the wider problem.
    I agree with John, the extraction of minerals for the batteries of electric vehicles is a huge problem, as is the whole process of manufacturing, running and maintaining all vehicles for our private use. He hasn’t even mentioned the microplastics from tyres, with tyre wear accounting for 68,000 tonnes of microplastics in the UK, with 7,000–19,000 tonnes entering surface waters annually. It doesn’t matter how the vehicle is powered.
    The answer is – of course – we need far fewer cars, and we need to travel less. The pandemic resulted in a massive decrease in public transport usage, which even now is nowhere close to pre-pandemic levels, whereas car usage is at or above the levels seen more than two years ago.
    There are so few disincentives to personal car use, exemplified by the cut in fuel duty by 5p per litre just six weeks ago, and prior to that the freeze in the fuel duty for the twelfth time. By comparison, the barriers to public transport just keep on mounting, with relentless reduction in bus services and rail prices soaring. Where are the initiatives to encourage carpooling or car clubs? There are none that I’m aware of.
    We also need to look at planning and urbanisation, with so much development leading to more travel, due to lack of mixed usage. And of course, there’s the disparity in housing availability and cost, forcing many to work or go to school far from where they live.
    There has been a boom in the sale of large gas-guzzling SUVs, with numbers more than doubling in the last six years – many people are untouched by the cost of living crisis, it would appear. Wealth inequality has a lot to answer for, I have all sympathy for the social worker or builder who has no option but to drive every day. However, making driving cheap is not the answer.
    It is no coincidence that the richest man alive, Elon Musk, sells high end electric cars. Owning a Tesla is a perfect way for the rich to ‘virtue signal’ how passionate they are about the environment, neatly absolving them of any responsibility for the damage they are causing in every other way, it would seem.
    It is clear, we have to move away from fossil fuels, and electric vehicles are a long overdue improvement, but right now these are still a long way off being truly sustainable.

  2. An interesting article but as John acknowledges we are only at the beginning of our journey into an electriuc future and many of these technologies – such as batteries – as evolving extremely rapidly to use different materials with less environmental impact. Also, as previously discussed in these threads on EVs, you are missing a massive peice of the puzzle: NO TAILPIPE EMISSIONS. Pollution from cars and vans comes at a massive cost of £6 billion annually to public health. This doesn’t seem to figure in your article at all. Also, you are clearly not looking at current mileage rates: Tesla, BMW, Skoda and VW all have models capable of 350-400 miles. The Highway Code recommends you take a break of 15 minutes for every 2 hours of driving: with today’s fast chargers, that’s plenty of time for a top-up whilst you stretch your legs and get a coffee.

  3. Another couple of points, if I may: it’s completely ridiculous to count the carbon cost of driving dump trucks from mines and not count the massively carbon intensive infrastructure used to extract, refine and sell hydrocarbons: think oil wells, pipelines, refinieries, ship tankers, road tankers, petrol stations…it’s obvious which is greener. And finally, John Minter again ignores an absoutely crucial point: you can power your EV with renewable energy very easily, either using your own solar panels and/or topping up from a green energy supplier. To suggest that this is less green than an ICE vehicle’s lifetime usage of petrol or deisel is to wilfully disregard reality.

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