Electric Cars, as sustainable as they seem?

by Amy Denton, GLOBUS Correspondent

Electric cars are the future, are they not? We have been told that they are more efficient and produce fewer emissions than traditional vehicles. An EU study in 2020 found that an electric car running on electricity generated solely by an oil-fired power station would use only two-thirds of the energy of a petrol car travelling the same distance. The positive messaging about the ‘sustainability’ of these vehicles has meant that the number of electric vehicles in use around the world has increased substantially in recent years, as shown in the graph below.

Source: Statista

We can see that millions of people now own electric cars, with almost 5 million electric cars in use in 2019. However, they may not be as sustainable as we have been led to believe they are. In fact, they are tainted with human rights violations and still have environmental impacts.

Electric cars use batteries to run, and cobalt is a key component of these, with the manufacturing of batteries accounting for 60% of global cobalt mining each year. Interestingly, over half of all cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and around 20% of the exports come from exploited labourers mining by hand for less than minimum wage, with approximately 40,000 of them being children. There are also those who sort and wash the minerals who are exploited because traders pay them by the weight of their finds, and the miners often have no way of independently verifying it. Apart from the exploitation in terms of underpaid labour, the miners are susceptible to illness such as chronic lung disease from the poor ventilation and abundance of cobalt dust in the mines and are constantly in danger of being caught in accidents from the lack of safety and supports.

Admittedly, electric cars are much better for the environment as they produce significantly lower emissions than traditional petrol and diesel vehicles. However, there are still downsides which we must consider. Pollution from the production of electric vehicles still exists, and the European Environment Agency reported that “emissions from battery electric vehicle (BEV) production are generally higher than those from internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) production.” Further studies have quantified this and shown a 59% increase in production emissions for electric vehicles as opposed to internal combustion engine vehicles. There is also the issue of indirect pollution from the use of electricity to power the batteries which, in many cases, is from non-renewable sources. Despite this, subsequent emissions from electric vehicles are extremely low.

So, the question I imagine many want answering is ‘are electric cars sustainable’. The answer is, they are, and they aren’t. Yes, they will help lower our emissions and carbon footprint. However, whilst the number of electric cars in use has increased in recent years, their uptake is still quite small, and for environmental benefits to be felt, they need to become more widely used. Before buying an electric car, the question should be asked, ‘at what cost?’ There are thousands of people risking their lives in dangerous work environments for below minimum wage to produce batteries for electric vehicles. In order for electric cars to be as sustainable as we have been told they are, these issues need to be addressed urgently.

Cover Photo: Ernest Ojeh

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