Eco-Awareness: Are electric cars really eco-friendly?

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

One of the most common things one hears political candidates say at election time is that they will bring about real change if elected. One usually does not have to listen very long to learn that what they mean by real change is an intensification of the effort to increase economic growth, which is widely considered to be the solution to most if not all of society’s problems.

The belief is the ideological bedrock of the main political parties in Ireland, the UK and across the world. Where the political parties strive to distinguish themselves from each other is the means by which economic growth will be achieved. Even when it comes to dealing with ecological catastrophes such as climate breakdown, loss of biodiversity and pollution the parties frame their solutions in terms of growth, albeit, with the prefix ‘green’ added.

When the mainstream politicians, CEOs and most commentators use the term ‘green’ they do not mean a change from viewing nonhuman nature in humancentric terms as in it is a collection of resources to be used for our benefit, be it material or a means of enhancing mental health. Nor does it mean respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples from whose lands most of the minerals used in the manufacture of the goods we purchase are sourced, or that the people employed in the chain of events which brings a product to the shops or our doorstep are paid a living wage.

Green growth’ is somewhat akin to putting new wine into old wine skins (Mt: 9:17) and is almost always used in regard to energy generated by wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, hydro and thermal power as well as conserving energy through insulation of the building stock. What is an anathema to governments and corporations is the idea of only buying what one actually needs.

Thus, the purchase of electric cars is encouraged rather than the replacement of petrol and diesel ones by comfortable, reliable and affordable forms of public transport and safe and attractive walk and cycle-ways.

The electrical car, which is widely trumpeted, is a good example of why so many ‘green’ inventions are the antithesis of real change. Will electric cars solve traffic congestion? Not if the aspiration of replacing every petrol and diesel car with an electric one is met as this will mean that there will be no decrease in the number of fatalities and serious injuries caused by vehicle collisions. They will also not lead to a reduction in road building and the amount of farm land and habitat paved-over to create park and ride enclosures. Nor will electric vehicles lead to the elimination of air pollution as according to the UK government’s Air Quality Expert Group (2019) more than half of the particle pollution from road transport comes from breaking and tyre wear.

The big sell of electric cars, one that is rarely critically evaluated in the media, is that they will make a significant contribution to the reduction of global warming gasses. This will not be the case if the batteries are recharged with energy generated by fossil fuels which is how most of the electricity used by the global economy in 2023 is produced.

In the highly unlikely event that all electricity worldwide is generated by ecologically benign sources of energy by 2030, after which no new petrol and diesel cars will be sold in Ireland and the UK, electric vehicles will still be a major source of global warming gases, a cause of ecocide and horrendous human rights abuses.

An electric car, excluding steel and aluminum, requires six times more minerals than a comparable petrol or diesel one. As 99 % of minerals come from mining, which produces 100 billion tonnes of waste a year, electric vehicles cause at least six times more ecological damage than conventional vehicles including the loss of biodiversity, the use and pollution of water and degradation of landscape. In fact, 56 % more fresh water is used to produce an electric car than a conventional one, which is a major draw on water at a time when large swaths of the world increasingly suffer from prolonged droughts.

The pre-showroom story of electric vehicles is one of high CO2 emissions as illustrated by the sourcing of just one mineral, cobalt. 70% of this is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where in the large Chinese owned mines heavy machinery using fossil fuels are used. The cobalt is then transported by diesel lorries on a two-week journey to either Dar es Salaam, Tanzania or Durban, South Africa where it is transported to China on ships using heavy diesel. In China, which has 73% of the market share of vehicle batteries, the energy to manufacture them comes from coal-fired power stations. The batteries are then sent by CO2 emitting ships to car factories around the world from where they are transported to the car showroom by – you guessed correctly, diesel powered ships and large vehicle transporter lorries.

As one would expect in our linear economy it is not the end of the story. As a BBC Costing the Earth programme reported in 2020, 93% of electric batteries are disposed of in landfill sites where, in time, they can contaminate soil and underground bodies of water. This will certainly happen if your battery ends up in an illegal dump such as the one close to the Faughan River on the outskirts of Derry City which was recently highlighted by the Radio 4 series, Buried.

Unlike in this part of the world the miners in DRC have no recourse to protect their human rights. Michele Fabiola Lawson in Human Trafficking Search, 1 September 2021, reports that of the estimated 250,000 cobalt miners in the DRC, 40,000 are children who, using their own tools, mainly their hands, earn less than $2 a day. Pete Pattisson reports in the Guardian, 8 Nov 2021, that a miner working in a large industrial mine earns 30 pence an hour. Both UNICEF and Amnesty International have published research documenting the exploitation of cobalt miners in the DRC. Not only are the miners grossly exploited but they are under constant threat of being killed as the cobalt mines are fought over by various militia.

What is the thinking that allows prosperous health and safety conscious societies like ours to base their life style on the exploitation of people in a faraway country, and through a chain of connections, utterly destroy their ecosystem? Might it not be the very same colonial mindset which made European countries, and later Anglo-countries like Australia and the United States, immensely wealthy in the first place? Might it be because prosperous societies regard the ecosystems in which the mines are sited as a thing rather than a complex web of life-forms and processes that have intrinsic value?

As consumers we could be more discerning and follow the example of Belfast born social activist and campaigner Mary Ann McCracken (1770-1866) who boycotted sugar grown on the slave plantations in the Americas. We should certainly educate ourselves about the cradle to grave life-stories of the things we buy and examine the notion of continual economic growth.