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Eco-Awareness, NN 287

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

The Greenwash of Green Technologies

Compared to ten years ago when the media, governments, corporations, organized religions and educational institutions largely endorsed and actively supported the fossil fuel based economic paradigm there has, it would seem, been a radical shift in thinking in regard to our relationship with nonhuman nature. This change is underscored by the UK’s most trusted public person Sir David Attenborough coming out of the closet and declaring himself an environmentalist. During his long career in broadcasting he studiously avoided drawing the public’s attention to the dire state the biosphere is in. More recently Bill Gates, with a private fortune of £165 billion, has made his concerns known about climate breakdown through the publication of his book ‘How To Avoid A Climate Disaster’.

Galvanised by environmentally-minded celebrities, who have enormous persuasive power, a more pro-environmental stance on the part of the mass media, (*1) and a more vocal public an increasing number of governments and corporations acknowledge that the biosphere is critically ill and vow to do something about one of its main aliments, global warming. The formula, which the public whole-heartily welcome, is a techno-fix in the form of electric vehicles, wind farms, solar panels, smart grids and increased digitalisation. It is hoped that these technologies will enable the global economy to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

The evidence suggests that this hope is a case of mass delusion. A case of wanting an equitable, ecologically sustainable society with the comforts, conveniences and recreational opportunities the wealthy world is accustomed to without anyone having to change a single iota of how they live. The aim of the EU, UK and the USA to replace petrol and diesel vehicles by 2035 with electric ones as an illustrative example. Every announcement by vehicle manufacturers to produce electric-only by a near-future date is widely applauded as a long stride taken towards meeting the aim of carbon neutrality b mid-century. The scrutiny applied to new medicines and building proposals is largely absent from the plan to replace the estimated one billion fleet of fossil driven vehicles with electric ones.

One reason why people welcome electric vehicles is because they are thought to cause no air pollution. What is over-looked is the case that whether a vehicle is electric or not braking and the friction of tyres on roads creates toxic dust. In 2019 the UK government’s Air Quality Expert Group warned that breaking and tyre wear contribute to more than half of the particle pollution from road transport.

Many other negative environmental factors of fossil driven vehicles apply to electric ones including the material and organizational infrastructure needed to support them. Thus paving over precious habitat and agricultural land will continue apace. There will still be traffic congestion and fatal road collisions. In fact the latter might rise as those on foot and bicycle are likely be less aware of the presence of electric vehicles as they emit little noise. This will especially be the case is residential areas and rural settings. Mass recharging parks might be required taking up more precious land.

A critical factor in regard to ecological sustainability of electric vehicles in that the materials required to manufacture them leave an ecological footprint equal to if not exceeding that required to manufacture petrol and diesel vehicles. Cuillaume Pitron in his book The Rare Metals War (2020) writes:

The 2016 report by the French Environment & Management Agency finds: ‘the energy consumption of an electric vehicle (EV) over its entire lifecycle is, on the whole, similar to that of a diesel vehicle.’ The report also finds that its environmental impact is ‘on par with (that of) the petrol car’. In fact, an EV might even emit more carbon dioxide than it consumes if the electricity it uses comes predominantly from coal –fired plants, as is the case in countries such as China, Australia, India, Taiwan and South Africa.” (*2).

Electric vehicles use a host of rare metals that are mined and refined at great cost to the environment and in the case of cobalt, an essential component of their batteries, more than 60 percent of which comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where it is mined using slave labour. (*3) The vehicles use alloys which at present cannot easily be recycled and nor can the batteries which have a relatively short life span. It is feared that the latter will create a ‘waste’ disposal problem no Local Council’ will be able to deal with which means they could end up in illegal dumps polluting soil and above and underground bodies of water.

When one looks at the evidence of the ecological impact of electric vehicles in the course of their lifecycle, the health and human rights issues, one can only but conclude that society has either been duped by the politicians and the vehicle manufacturers, or is happy to collude with the pretence that electric vehicles are considerably better for the environment than diesel and petrol ones.

In spite of the difficulty in recycling rare metals, especially when combined to form alloys, and the absence of any intention to curtail economic growth, which would be an anathema to the dominant economic paradigm, the assumption is that rare metals can be mined indefinably and are not what their name proclaims them to be. Their rarity is revealed by the figures provided by Pitron.

Eight and a half tonnes of rock need to be purified to produce a kilogram of vanadium; sixteen tonnes for a kilogram of cerium; fifty tonnes for the equivalent in gallium; and a staggering 1,200 tonnes for one miserable kilogram of the rarest of rare metals; lutecium.” (*4)

The ecological calamity that will be caused in meeting the insatiable demand for the rare metals used in electric vehicles will likely be as bad as that caused by the fossil fuel industry. The same ecological hazards and human suffering incurred by the manufacture of electric vehicles pertains to all so-called green technologies including wind turbines, solar panels, smart phones, home computers and the entire infrastructure of the internet all of which require rare metals, substantive amounts of energy and vast supplies of water to manufacture and maintain.

Given the historical lack of honesty of governments and corporations – we might recall their stoic reluctance to tighten the laws on the sale of tobacco and the use of lead – it is astounding that society passively accepts the idea that so called green technology will result in a global green nirvana. It seems that belief in green technology based on rare metals is akin to the belief in diet pills which can make people who want to lose weight to do so without them having to change their diet or lifestyle in any way. What society does not want to change is the paradigm of unlimited economic growth and the power structures and behaviour patterns that are an integral part of it.

(*1) Ian Burrell, Media on Monday, i newspaper, 22 February 2021.

(*2) The Rare Metals War: The dark side of clean energy and digital technologies, Guillaume Pitron, 2020, p. 38.

(*3) From Stone to Phone: Modern Day Cobalt Slavery In Congo, www.bylinetimes.com, 10 December 2020.

(*4) The Rare Metals War: The dark side of clean energy and digital technologies, Guillaume Pitron, 2020, p. 3 & 4.