Are electric cars as sustainable as they sound?
Electric cars can help us reduce air pollution. But the resources for new technologies, and human rights where they’re mined, also need to be considered.
SEE MORE: UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures
The unexpected impacts of electric vehicle technologies
The growing demand for electric vehicles is an important part of helping the world cut transport emissions. But, like solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage technologies, electric vehicles require a complex mix of metals, many of which have only been previously mined in small amounts.
These include cobalt, nickel and lithium for batteries; rare earth metals for permanent magnets; and silver for solar panels.
In a scenario where 100 per cent of our energy is renewable and we don’t increase recycling, demand for some of these metals could actually exceed the planet’s reserves.
Creating new environmental problems
Without a careful approach, we could create new environmental damage while trying to solve an existing environmental problem.
A greater clean energy uptake also has the potential to create new social problems. Heavy metals, for instance, could contaminate water and agricultural soils, leading to health issues for surrounding communities and workers.
Most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa and around 20 per cent of this is from artisanal and small-scale miners who often work in dangerous conditions inside hand-dug mines.
They include an estimated 40,000 children under 15.
Rare earths processing requires large amounts of harmful chemicals and produces large volumes of solid waste, gas and wastewater, which have contaminated villages in China.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE RESEARCH: Responsible minerals sourcing for renewable energy
What would a sustainable electric vehicle system look like?
To ensure the transition to clean energy does not increase the already significant environmental and human impacts of mining, a sustainable renewable energy and transport system should focus both on improving practices for recycling and sourcing from socially and environmentally responsible mines.
For example, our research has found that if 90 per cent of the cobalt from electric vehicle and energy storage batteries was recycled the cumulative demand for cobalt would reduce by half by 2050.
Many electric vehicle and battery manufacturers have been proactively establishing recycling initiatives and investigating new options, such as reusing electric vehicle batteries as energy storage once they are no longer efficient enough for vehicles.
But, there is still potential to improve recycling rates. Not all types of metals are currently being recovered in the recycling process. For example, often only higher-value cobalt and nickel are recovered, whereas lithium and manganese are not.
The makers of electric cars have the opportunity to lead these industries, driving change up the supply chain, and influence their suppliers to adopt responsible and humane practices.
And while some electric vehicle manufacturers are beginning to engage in responsible sourcing of materials, many are concerned about the ability to secure enough supply from responsibly-sourced mines.
If the auto industry as a whole makes public commitments to responsible sourcing, it will have a flow-on effect through the entire supply chain. For example, more mines would be encouraged to engage with responsible practices and establish certification schemes.
However, it is important that these responsible sourcing practices do not lead to unintended negative consequences, such as increasing poverty, by avoiding sourcing from countries with poorer governance.
Focusing on supporting responsible operations in these countries will have a better long-term impact than avoiding those nations altogether.
In Australia, the Federal Government has already committed to supporting industry so they can better manage batteries and solar panels at the end of their life. But stronger policies will be needed to ensure reuse and recycling occurs if the industry does not establish effective schemes on their own, and quickly.
The power to drive change
The renewable energy transition will only be sustainable if human rights are made top priority in communities where mining takes place and along the supply chain.
The makers of electric cars have the opportunity to lead these industries, driving change up the supply chain, and influencing their suppliers to adopt responsible and humane practices.
Governments and industry must also urgently invest in recycling and reuse schemes to ensure that the valuable metals used in these technologies are recovered, so that only what is necessary is mined.
Elsa Dominish is a Senior Research Consultant at UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures.
Nick Florin is a Research Director of UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures.
A version of this article was originally published on The Conversation.