“We’re trying to help the environment, we think it’s the most serious problem that humanity faces” says the man synonymous with accelerating the move towards electric vehicles (EVs) – Mr Elon Musk.
The European Commission found electric cars produce lower greenhouse gases than their petrol or diesel equivalents, even when energy generation is factored in. However, I think we need to turn our attention to wider environmental and social implications that this technology brings, namely, the impact of mining for battery materials and the ethical concerns surrounding supply chains. Something which the likes of Elon Musk rarely talk about.
Cobalt, a key material in EV batteries provides the most difficult supply dynamics for automotive companies. As much as 65 per cent comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one of the world’s poorest countries.
According to this report, the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector in the DRC represents a significant proportion of the economy. It is estimated that up to 15-20% of the population work as artisanal miners, producing 90% of the country’s mineral exports. However, over the last decade, these individuals have become highly migratory, adapting to shifts in product demand across the country. Their temporary settlement in communities can often have very negative social impacts including family breakup, increased prostitution, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and distortion of local market prices of basic goods due to their relatively higher daily income earned.
There are also environmental concerns surrounding battery production. Metal contamination is one of the most persistent and complex environmental issues, with mining communities amongst the most polluted areas in the world. There is also increasing levels of contaminated sea life leading to potential health risks for some DRC communities who rely on a sea food diet.
There appears to be no let up either. The race for raw materials is intensifying as investors and companies see the potential financials gains to be made from the expected rapid expansion of the EV market. Prices for cobalt are up 190% in the last few years alone and with 40m vehicles expected on the road by 2040, up from 2m in 2016, the pressure of supply and demand will continue to rise. This demonstrates another example where the extraction of raw materials for “green” technologies and their transfer from poor to the wealthy constitutes ecologically unequal exchange and provides critique of ecological modernization theory (Bonds & Downey, 2015).
Whilst I doubt Elon Musk’s infamous tweeting ability, locally, there’s little doubt that electric cars will help to make our towns and cities cleaner, quieter and more pleasant. For ‘humanity’ – I don’t think so. You ask why? Inequality. You can have all the Tesla’s you want, even fly them into space, but these electric vehicles by themselves, in a highly unequal world, do very little for the world’s poor. As the reports referred to in this blog demonstrate, the commercialisation of “green” technologies expose already marginalized groups to increased societal and environmental problems, all while offering a new justification to maintain the status quo.
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Bonds, E. & Downey, L., 2015. Green Technology and Ecologically Unequal Exchange: The Environmental and Social Consequences of Ecological Modernization in the World-System. Journal of World-Systems Research, 18(2), pp.167–186.