Electric vehicles are seen as the saviors of the planet. It is offered as an answer to cutting out fossil fuels and carbon emissions. But, in the race to shift to what is often touted as "clean" or "green" energy, one finds that it is hardly a pristine path.
Lithium-ion batteries are the power source for electric vehicles. The power, the distance traveled on a single charge, and the overall driving experience of an electric vehicle (EV) are all directly related to the battery pack in it.
While it is true that there are no exhaust fumes from an EV, what goes into the batteries that power these vehicles calls for more inspection. EV batteries require minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth minerals like neodymium and dysprosium.
Cobalt gives EV batteries stability. At present, over half the world's cobalt supplies are used to build lithium-ion batteries. It may take up to 30 kilograms of this rare earth mineral for a single EV battery, depending on the vehicle.
A recently concluded Golden/TIPP Poll found that EVs are steadily gaining ground, especially among the young and urbanites. More than a quarter of those in the age group of 18–44 years would opt for an electric vehicle in place of a conventional gasoline one.
The rising popularity of the EV is driving up the demand for these rare metals. For instance, demand for cobalt tripled in the last decade alone. Numbers suggest that in another five years, the cobalt industry will be worth $14 billion.
Procuring these valuable and crucial minerals for the developed world are the poverty-stricken people of developing nations who work in inhumane conditions for less than a dollar a day.
The Dark Side Of Mining
Minerals like cobalt are hard to mine and often cause extensive pollution of the soil and local water sources. They also kill local fauna, leading to desertification of the land. Besides these environmental issues, the plight of mine workers has been gaining the attention of the world.
About three-fourths of the global deposits of cobalt are found in Africa, specifically in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The second-largest African country is largely dependent on mining to support its economy. Riddled with poverty, conflict, and corruption, the Congo government is hardly in a position of authority to truly profit from its vast deposits of cobalt, a mineral the First World nations can't get enough of.
Almost two million people of Congo are engaged in what is referred to as "artisanal mining" to earn a living. "Artisanal mines" are small-scale, unregulated mines. 30% of Congo's cobalt is procured in such mines. They are often operated using child labor and employ children as young as six. Large corporations buy from artisanal miners because it is cheaper.
The deplorable, life-threatening, and inhuman conditions of such mines have prompted calls for action. But, little has been done, and deaths are common. It is estimated that 2,000 "artisanal miners" die every year in DR Congo alone.
The state of industrial mines is not much different. China owns 15 of the 19 industrial mines in Congo. Chinese mines are also known for human rights abuses, physical punishments, and poor wages.
As the most dominant player in the cobalt supply chain, it owns 50% of the world's cobalt production and operates 80% of its refining. China's near-monopolistic hold over the cobalt trade is worrisome. Beijing's aggressive agenda and disruptions in the global supply chain could lead to severe shortages or volatile prices of the crucial mineral.
Some of the world's most respected automobile manufacturers are indirect benefactors of child labor. Their zero-tolerance policy towards child labor falls by the wayside.
Recycling Is A Must
The technological shift to electric vehicles calls for fresh policy directives and innovative industrial practices. They must be formulated and executed to attain the maximum possible degree of self-reliance.
The pandemic-induced supply chain restrictions and the resultant delays have brought home the need to reduce dependence on other nations and to improve domestic capabilities. This is especially so in the case of crucial sectors like rare earth minerals and energy. One way to achieve this goal is to reduce the dependence on imported rare earth minerals for EV batteries. To a large extent, this is possible by recycling EV batteries.
An efficient process, it is estimated, can recover as much as 90% of cobalt, nickel, and copper from used lithium-ion batteries. It would mandate designing and installing batteries in such a way that automated disassembly and reclaiming of raw materials are easier and efficient. This can significantly reduce waste, contamination of soil and water, dependence on import supply chains, and also stretch existing domestic mineral deposits. Built-in take-back and recycling supply chains by car manufacturers will ensure that very few batteries end up in landfills.
EVs may be the future of transportation. But, it is imperative that the governments and industry work together to ensure that the shift to a "cleaner, greener" energy source is not accomplished through gross human rights violations.