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What impact does mineral mining have on electric cars?


In the arid regions of Chile, the Australian outback, and the plains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the land is being excavated and the water depleted in order to extract the necessary minerals for the production of electric cars to meet global demand.

Critics of the move towards cleaner energy often point to the environmental impact of mining for battery materials. However, in our series “EV Mythbusters,” we are analyzing common complaints about electric cars and separating fact from fiction. We will examine the myths, the truths, and the areas that are not so clear.

Our initial installment raised the question of prioritizing fire safety in electric vehicles. This piece poses the inquiry: do electric cars face challenges with mining?

The claim

The extraction of battery materials is due to expand on a grand scale. That will leave a trail of mining – often with local environmental degradation – in its wake. The rightwing politician turned pundit Nigel Farage last month wrote of electric vehicles’ “nasty secret” and the “strain” on the environment from mining for minerals used in electric cars.

Apart from the environmental consequences, there is also a concern regarding the prevalence of child labor and exploitation of artisanal miners in certain areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo at cobalt mines. This has been highlighted in reports by organizations such as Amnesty International and others dedicated to protecting human rights.

A child walks past a truck carrying rocks extracted from a cobalt mine at a copper quarry and cobalt pit in Lubumbashi, DRC.

According to a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, electric cars are constructed using pollution and causing human suffering. The Washington Post also reported that the switch to electric vehicles is fueled by “blood batteries.”

The science

The demand for minerals in heavy batteries is expected to increase significantly. According to the International Energy Agency, electric cars require 173kg more minerals, including lithium, nickel, and copper, compared to petrol cars (excluding steel and aluminium). Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, a data company, predicts that global demand for lithium, the primary battery metal, will quadruple to 3m tonnes by 2030, surpassing supply.

However, in general, the amount of minerals used in electric cars is significantly lower compared to traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles, once the factor of oil consumption is taken into account. According to Transport & Environment (T&E), a think tank based in Brussels, a gasoline car will consume approximately 17,000 liters of oil over its lifespan, which equates to about 12.5 tonnes.

Many critiques of the mineral usage in electric cars overlook a crucial factor: a significant portion of the battery materials used in these cars can be recycled. This will greatly reduce the amount of wasted materials, unlike fossil fuels which disappear without notice and contribute to the harmful heating of our planet.

According to David Bott, the Society of Chemical Industry’s innovation leader, many people overlook the fact that 80-90% of mined metals can be recycled and reused, eliminating the need to extract more minerals from the planet.

According to T&E’s findings, the amount of battery material waste produced by an electric car over its lifetime will be approximately equivalent to the size of a football or 30kg by 2030, assuming proper recycling practices are followed. However, this estimation does not take into account the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, which means the actual environmental impact of mining minerals will be greater than 30kg until countries transition to completely decarbonized electrical grids.

a silver electric car charging

Julia Poliscanova, T&E’s senior director for vehicles and e-mobility, stated that by the year 2030, approximately 30 million tonnes of critical minerals will be required for batteries. This amount is significant, but it pales in comparison to the 15 billion tonnes of fossil fuels used in just one year.

According to Auke Hoekstra, a researcher studying the transition to renewable energy at Eindhoven University of Technology, only a small portion of the Earth’s livable land is utilized for mining, specifically less than 0.01% for battery minerals. This may seem like a significant amount, but it is still much less compared to the large quantities of other materials extracted, such as 130,000 tonnes of lithium, as reported by the US Geological Survey. However, these numbers are overshadowed by the amounts of iron ore (2.6 billion tonnes) and oil (4.4 billion tonnes) that were mined in 2022 for steel production.

According to Hoekstra, the extraction of fossil fuels requires a significant and ongoing amount of material. However, with batteries, there is potential for a circular process.

Any caveats?

It is undeniable that numerous global supply chains for resources conceal disturbing violations of human rights. Companies like Apple and BMW, who produce mobile phones and cars, respectively, are taking steps to address this issue by monitoring their use of cobalt, tracking supply chains, and implementing “battery passports” to inform consumers of the contents in their batteries.

Mark Dummett, the leader of Amnesty International’s division on business and human rights, co-authored an initial investigation uncovering the use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, he maintains that the battery industry is not uniquely problematic and has personally witnessed alleged human rights violations related to oil extraction in the Niger Delta.

According to Dummett, these issues have always been present in mining. He firmly believes that opponents of the energy transition and the fossil fuel industry have greatly exaggerated this problem.

And the alternative will not mean less mining. Caspar Rawles, the chief data officer at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said: “It always makes me laugh. OK, the mining of EV [materials] is harmful. Where do you think your car now comes from?”

The verdict

Based on our data, it is clear that resource extraction for electric cars will be significantly reduced with the increase of recycling, in comparison to petrol or diesel cars.

The green credentials of electric cars do not excuse the purchasers of battery minerals from accountability for human rights violations in the supply chain. Dummett expressed his desire for the mining industry to take this opportunity to make changes and improve.

Source: theguardian.com