EVs or Electric vehicles are the new mobility aspiration. Owning a Tesla model, in the words of a German auto enthusiast, is almost a religious experience.  Tesla and many of the EVs from upmarket car manufactures such as BMW, Daimler, Audi and Co are marketing models that promise to meet the traditional expectations of classy, fast and long distance with the eco-stamp of no driving emissions.  And the increasing opportunity to power your mobility with clean Renewable Energy as more wind and solar is connected to the grid.

This is very appealing. Sadly, it is only part of the EV story.

Yes! it is true that driving an EV causes significantly less environmental harm than a conventional Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV), building one however, has a far higher environmental footprint.  In a nut shell the reasons are:

–          serious social and environmental impacts associated with the mining of raw materials for the batteries including habitat destruction and displacement of local communities and /or loss of traditional livelihoods in the mining areas;

–          high CO2 emissions (ironically) to process the raw materials and manufacture the batteries;

–          a  marketing model of replacing ICEVs with high performance EVs resulting in very large battery requirements with a corresponding large eco-footprint. Too much Ego and not enough Eco!!!

As EVs are expensive in South Africa, I have been content to save for additional PV roof panels to charge an e-bike while dreaming of an affordable EV in the future.  The news about the eco-impacts of EVs came as a big wake-up in an excellent German documentary on the environmental footprint of EVs.  To ease the shock it also offered some solutions.

The key message is EVs have an important role in future cleaner transport, but first industry needs to clean up its act and commuters need to change their expectations.  In a translation of the sentiments of German physicist, Harald Lesch who was interviewed for the documentary.   We accepted the negative impacts of fossil fuel extraction, but sadly nothing has changed with EVs. It appears as if industry’s answer to the questionWhere does the lithium come from is: Oh, it just gets delivered!!!  

Impacts in mining areas.

Lama farmers in Argentina whose water and land are being impacted by lithium mining are questioning the equity of destroying their livelihoods so that people in Europe can drive emission free cars.  It takes 2 million litres of water (evaporated) to extract 1 tonne of Lithium in a typical Argentinian salt lake mine operation and 80 000 litres of water for a battery for a large EV.  In the Congo, Amnesty International is challenging the ethics of child labour in cobalt mines across the country.  The documentary I am quoting from is: Kann das Elektro-Auto die Umwelt retten? 03.06.19 | 44:34 Min. (Can the EV save the Environment?)    http://mediathek.daserste.de/Reportage-Dokumentation/Kann-das-Elektro-Auto-die-Umwelt-retten/Video?bcastId=799280&documentId=63541548

Several accredited publications demonstrate that the manufacturing process of EV’s produces more GHG emissions than conventional Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs).  This is largely because of the energy intensity of battery production including mining for the raw materials.   The illustration below gives an idea of the range of raw materials needed to manufacture an EV.


High GHG Emissions of battery production

Svenja Schultz the Minister of Environment in Germany echoes auto manufacturers when she says that it does not help to produce EVs that the public does not want.  However, in the euphoria of emission free driving, few drivers are aware of the impacts of their expectations. A 100kWh battery used in a large EV requires 17 tonnes of GHG to produce – the equivalent of driving a medium sized ICEV for 100 000kilometers.  That’s a shocker.  Even the GHG emissions to produce an E.Go built in Aachen (Germany) as a small city EV with a range of 104kms on a 14.9kWh battery is equivalent to driving a medium sized ICEV 25 000kilometers.

Pressure for improvement

It appears that in the competition to capture market share and access new resources, environmental best practice has been allocated a back seat. Industry does not like regulation nor do big brands like bad publicity, but both mechanisms are required if EVs are to live up to the expectation of clean mobility.   Improved efficiencies in the EV production process are likely, including future recycling of the precious raw materials and choosing more earth friendly battery chemicals. Like fossil fuel, the rare earth minerals required for both EV and energy storage batteries are a finite resource.

As awareness of the impacts of irresponsible mineral extraction grows, so must the pressure on battery and auto manufacturers.  Genuinely transparent ethical standards for procurement in the entire supply chain need to be stated in a certificate of social and environmental responsibility for all batteries.  We can influence change for a better world by calling for an eco- production certificate for all components of our EVs (Smart phone and PV systems, etc).  A promise that your EV can go from 0- 100kph in 3 seconds feeds the ego.  Let this not be at the expense of the eco.

This article attempts to alert EV owners and wannabe owners to some of the issues around the production of EVs.  It is a sad testimony to our worship of technology uber alles that the EV era has not started with a cleaner record. For a comprehensive article on the impacts of mining raw materials for batteries around the globe read more at  https://www.wired.co.uk/article/lithium-batteries-environment-impact.

There are many other issues on the road to the efficient, environmentally and socially responsible electrification of mobility.  Shifting to EVs for public and private transport will place a huge new demand on our electricity infrastructure.  Once again technology provides many but not all the solutions.  Changes in our mobility behaviour will also be required.  Necessary  changes include safe cycling ways, lift sharing and shared car ownership, electric busses and trams, better integration of transport systems, etc.  Apps that link a range of mobility services from taxis, ride share, public transport etc are also making city mobility easier.  One example is Trafi.   https://www.businessmaas.com/apps/trafi-is-revolutionising-city-traffic/

Considering all the issues, it is just as well that it will be a while before I and most fellow South Africans can afford an EV or collectively share one.  Hopefully by then the battery and EV industry will have matured into one that offers genuine best practice production and our national and municipal electricity power issues will be on track to meet demand.

Kim Kruyshaar 20 June 2019

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