Are Electric Cars a Solution to the Climate Crisis?

Perhaps, but only if you are willing to accept child labor abuses, exorbitant exposure to toxics, and violation of the rights of indigenous peoples. Post also includes two coming events and a link to more.

Actions & Events

Youth-led General Strike Planning

Saturday, August 3, 12:30-2:30pm, EarthCare and the Youth United for Climate Crisis Action, Center for Progress & Justice, 1420 Cerrillos Rd. are holding a planning meeting to prepare for the September 20 General Strike. Their last meeting was jammed with people and enthusiasm. Find out how this youth-led coalition is injecting clarity and urgency into local climate crisis action

Sunday, Aug 4 Collected Works Bookstore is hosting – a reading and book signing with former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. The event is not being held at Collected Works, but will be held at Santa Fe Prep, 1101 Camino De Cruz Blanca and free of charge.

Tuesday, August 6, 6:30-8:30pm at 1420 Cerrillos the Center for Progress and Justice.  Retake Our Democracy Organizing Meeting.  Join us to find out how you can get involved. 

Click here for information on the events above, as well as the Methane Hearings, a Red Nation panel on three centuries of settler colonialism, and a Town Hall on advancing legislation to create Community Solar.

Electric Vehicles Depend Upon Child Labor Abuses and Environmental Degradation

Children and adults from the Democratic Republic of the Congo sorting through cobalt with their hands.

At an Oslo Electric Vehicle Summit, Amnesty International shared research it had published in 2016 that revealed that children and adults were being exposed to serious health risks from working side-by-side in hand-dug cobalt mines in DRC and their research has linked these mines to supply chains that service the world’s leading electronics brands and electric vehicle companies. With projections of explosive increases in demand for cobalt and with 60% of the world’s cobalt mined in DRC, Amnesty International fears a commensurate growth in child labor abuse and exposure to toxics known to pose serious health risks.

“The massive global corporations that dominate the electric vehicle industry have the resources and expertise to create energy solutions that are truly clean and fair, and we are challenging them to come back to Oslo next year with proof of real progress. With demand for batteries soaring, now is the time for a drastic overhaul of our energy sources that prioritizes protection of human rights and the environment.”

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

Human rights violations and exposure to health risks from cobalt mining are not the only challenges involved in the production of lithium ion batteries, with Amnesty International documenting violations of indigenous rights in Argentina where lithium mines compromise the water security of indigenous peoples who are not even consulted about mining operations.

Add child labor abuses and exposure to highly toxic cobalt to the sticker price of this Tesla.

What’s more, the production of lithium ion batteries also involves environmental compromises as battery production relies upon coal-based energy in China, South Korea and Japan where most lithium-ion batteries are produced. Taken together, Amnesty International’s studies points to the very high carbon footprint and human rights sacrifices involved in the production of the electric vehicles viewed as central to our response to the climate crisis.

“Every stage of the battery lifecycle, from mineral extraction to disposal, carries human rights and environmental risk. We need to change course now, or those least responsible for climate change – indigenous communities and children – will pay the price for the shift away from fossil fuels. The energy solutions of the future must not be based on the injustices of the past.”

Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
Electric bus, a greener, more sustainable solution to our transportation needs.

There is an elephant in the room. The comfort of the privileged drives this problem. If we were truly looking for a sustainable solution, it would not involve each of us with a Tesla in our garage, but each of us with a bicycle that can get us to the network of electric powered, buses and trains that connect all of us to your friends, our markets, our theatres and our jobs.

This crisis will not be solved with solutions based upon 1950’s assumptions, comforts and sensibilities. We can only address this crisis with 21st century solutions that break through outdated assumptions. If you want to be part of our Research team that conducts research into policies and legislation that promote social, environmental, and economic justice in New Mexico, let us know by emailing me at paul@retakeourdemocracy.org and put down Aug 6 at 6:30pm in your calendar and join us at our monthly organizing meeting.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

16 thoughts on “Are Electric Cars a Solution to the Climate Crisis?

  1. Don’t you suppose we could clean up child labor and environmental depredations with responsible regulation? Or through a company like Tesla that is working to do a type of ‘fair trade’ to cure these problems? Electric cars are hugely better than gasoline powered cars. You have fallen into the all-too-common trap of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

    • I don’t think he’s saying “perfect or nothing”. But he is saying we should start right now working hard to ensure that transitioning away from fossil fuels is done well.

    • We’re having a hard time getting sufficient regulations reinstated here in the US, so I’m not optimistic about how much we can benefit Congolese workers.

    • I don’t know for sure, but probably. As mentioned in a comment below, battery technology is evolving rapidly, but if not lithium batteries, then (at least right now) probably lead-acid (as in the traditional car battery) and we know the environmental problems associated with lead.

      I tend to agree with comments pointing out that it would be better to address the environmental and social/economic justice problems associated with such production, rather than leave the transportation field to the oil & gas industry. And I also agree that a better approach is to reduce the number of automobiles of all types by encouraging mass transit and local economies, as also pointed out below. But we can find problems with the production of almost anything, so there will be some of these issues no matter what, and choices will have to be made.

  2. Nowhere is public transportation, trains and investment in infrastructure for rebuilding the railroad system ever discussed. The media gawks all over Tesla, and rarely covers anything to do with transportation. Adding vehicles to the already dangerously over crowded over stressed highways system, only because they appear cleaner, is ridiculous. Huge areas are devoted to parking, and vehicles, it even impacts housing.

    This country needs systemic change, not more of the same, shiny electric vehicles are not going to fundamentally change anything. The corporations continue to use the rail system we paid for, and continue to pay for, while most people have no access. Rail could replace a lot of airplane flights too, as it already does in the Northeast Corridor. In China the citizens have high speed rail, something they have suppressed here.

    The batteries in those electric cars require a lot of minerals, and those minerals and their extraction are contributing to Global Warming, and numerous human rights violations and support corruption and terrorism. https://www.icij.org/investigations/fatal-extraction/ Numerous mines in Central America are poisoning the water, killing indigenous leaders, and driving migration here. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jul/30/el-salvador-water-crisis-privatization-gangs-corruption

    Electric cars and disposable electronics are driving this gold rush into mineral extraction. In Brazil, the rain forest is disappearing, and more indigenous are being killed, https://www.ecowatch.com/brazil-mining-indigenous-lands-2631737058.html?rebelltitem=1 The ravages don’t stop there, right up the hill in Pecos, an Australian mining company is planning to exploit the lax regulations, poverty and corruption, and mine up there. https://www.abqjournal.com/1325179/mining-company-proposing-drilling-north-of-pecos.html

    There is nothing “Green” about electric cars, but we need areal solution to the environmental and societal damage done by only investing in roads for vehicles. Communities have been destroyed by the over reliance on cars. Other developed nations have robust public transportation systems, and owning a car is a choice. We have not seen one of these “billionaires” go after the destruction caused by the extraction industry, because they are profiting from it.

    American media just does not cover any of this, https://www.icij.org/investigations/fatal-extraction/

  3. This article is a useful reminder that one needs to look at the entire production cycle and supply chain of a technology when assessing its environmental impact. For a description of the various raw materials and their sources used in the production of lithium-ion batteries, see:
    http://www.influitenergy.com/supply-chain-and-raw-materials-for-growing-battery-production/

    Lithium-ion (LI) is the predominant battery technology used in EV’s as well as for the batteries used in computers, smart phones and other portable electronic devices. LI is also currently the most cost effective (and common) battery technology used in connection with intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar for supply/demand matching and in power grid supply regulation. See:
    https://www.lazard.com/media/450774/lazards-levelized-cost-of-storage-version-40-vfinal.pdf

    It should be noted that there are other battery technologies that are close to competitive in this type of application (in particular what are referred to as ‘flow’ battery technologies, and even in some cases, traditional lead-acid types). Of course, all of these have their own raw material supply chain issues as is the case with many rare earths used in the production of photo-voltaic solar cells.
    Many of the rare materials used in these applications are currently produced as by products in the refining of more common industrial raw materials such as zinc or copper (although one, Gallium, is refined from the coal ash residue from coal fired power plants). See:
    https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1365/Circ1365.pdf

    One of the key challenges (that few people seem to want to talk about) in a large scale transition to renewable energy is finding sufficient sources for many of the raw materials required for these technologies when deployed at the massive scale required for a major transition as well as the associated environmental challenges of the associated mining, refining and (when possible) recycling such materials. One thing that is clear is that the current sources of many of these materials (as by-products of other industrial processes) will not produce nearly enough to cover massively increased demand.

  4. The article is partially right and partially wrong. First, the proper response to learning that the production of any product involves harmful practices is NOT to shun the use of a helpful new technology, but rather to solve those problems at the source, replace them new environmentally friendly production methods. Even a technology such as PV solar panels starts to look evil if we trace back to the source of all all the materials that go into their making. (Glass, aluminum, silicon, ethelyne vinyl acetate…) We have to reform the entire production infrastructure. I know that is a titanic undertaking, but that is the task that is laid before us.

    Second, a truly sustainable solution is NOT to replace the entire transportation infrastructure with an all-new type (however “green” it may be), but to drastically reduce the amount of transportation going on. This means transforming to a society and economy of self-sufficiency at the town & city level, where the majority of our goods and services are generated locally, greatly reducing the need for physically transporting things and people long distances on a regular basis.

    Part of the picture of sustainability must include a certain amount of self-restraint. Imagine a long-term future in which fossil fuels are simply gone, used up, and alternative sources such as solar will be expensive and unlikely to keep up with demand in the way that the golden age of cheap fossil fuels has. All energy-intensive applications are likely to be scarce, expensive, and used only by necessity. Self-restraint may ultimately be forced on us. The wise will make a plan for this transition.

    • Excellent comment. Localizing our lives is definitely part of the solution. But unfortunately there are national conferences, grandchildren and parents, and all sorts of other travel demands that can’t easily be avoided. But your larger point about creating sustainable local economies and cultures is spot on. Thanks so much.

  5. Not everyone is capable of bicycling to market, and how many bags of groceries can anyone carry either on foot or on a bicycle? Growing up, there was a grocery store less than half a block away from home. Neighborhood stores were wonderful, but they’re not coming back while Kroger et al. are doing their corporate thing.
    Nothing, not bicycling to mass transit and not lithium batteries, can be a one-size-fits-all solution. The moral of this story is probably to do the research and keep an eye out for exceptions to our solutions.
    And yes, refuse to cut corners. We have to save the planet AND provide a just transition.
    So does anyone have any ideas how to stand up for DRC workers handling cobalt with their own skin in the game?

  6. In response to the blog and several of the comments I’ve read, I first need to reveal my biases as a life-long environmentalist and as a recent buyer of a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV). As an environmentalist, I am deeply aware of external costs in the manufacturing and production of products we consume. Everything from toothpaste and toilet paper to cars and electricity has external costs that are rarely considered in the pricing and costing of these products. These externalities are very important and can be seriously deadly. However, when you consider our attempt to provide food, water, shelter, transportation and other “amenities” to nearly 9 billion people on this planet, the sheer size of the challenge will create deadly problems in production along huge amounts of waste by-products.

    I do not mean to undervalue the human cost of the production of ZEVs, however there is a bigger issue at hand. We are in the midst of a Climate Crisis – not Climate Change – a true and real CRISIS. If we do not act immediately to the Climate Crisis none of those externalities discussed here will be around to worry about. We very soon will not have a planet habitable to the human species. Gov. Jay Inslee in the last debate said we need to quit kicking the can down the road. In a Crisis, immediate actions need to be taken and in the Climate Crisis, buying a ZEV is an immediate action that will have a positive effect.

    We accuse the Science Deniers for ignoring the threat we have been talking about since the 1960s. President Trump is the leading naysayer and because of his efforts, we are farther behind the Climate Crisis curve. However, I also offer that there has been a large body of intellectuals and government leaders who have caused delays in action as they over-think and wishy-wash their way through failing attempts to creative solutions and legislation. We could not even pass a solar tax credit in New Mexico this year when everyone was screaming for alternative, renewable energy sources. Since we are now in a Climate Crisis, the time for debate and meaningless hyperbole is gone. Now we only have time for action.

    It is thought that the source of 20-25% of all CO2 released into the atmosphere is transportation. That being said, I agree that our public transportation especially train travel is underutilized. Last spring my wife and I chose to take train instead of a plane in our trip from Raleigh, NC to Philadelphia, PA. It made sense to us to try and lower our carbon footprint while spending a lower amount on fares. The planned 8-hour ride was even competitive to the 6-8 hours air travel was going to take since there were no direct flights. The trip was relatively pleasant even though the engines were burning diesel most of the way. The seats were relatively comfortable and the view was intriguing. However, due to passenger trains being a low priority over the rails, our train arrived 8 hours late to Philadelphia. We were told this was a regular occurrence. Yes, we are spoiled Americans, but travel needs to be more convenient than this. We also researched train travel options for a trip from ABQ to Vancouver, WA. If there are no delays, 4 of our 6 day vacation would have been spent on the train instead of with our grandson. We opted for the 2.5 hour plane ride instead. Improving our transportation infrastructure especially train travel is an important objective, however, it will take decades to complete and, in a Crisis, we don’t have the luxury of time.

    Purchasing a ZEV is an immediate action that people can take today. The average car, traveling 12,000 miles per year emits 4.6 metric tons of CO2 in that year. If we could put 1 million ZEVs on the road today we would make an immediate and important impact on the Climate Crisis by eliminating 4.6 million metric tons of CO2. That is the reason we purchased our ZEV this year, to eliminate CO2 emission from our daily commute.
    There are other reasons to purchase a ZEV today including the $7500 Federal Tax Credit. The first 200,000 cars sold by ZEV manufacturers are eligible for this tax credit. Now, when you purchase a car that costs in the range of $24-108 thousand dollars, you have a significant cost savings awaiting you on your next tax return. This makes the ZEV an affordable option at this time but the credit is disappearing with each car sold in California. Tesla and Chevy have already exceeded the 200,000 car threshold so their tax credits are going away. Nissan is projected to hit 200,000 by the end of the year. It is a personal benefit but why choose to delay and miss out?

    The cost of operation of the ZEV, even when using PNM electricity is a fraction of gas-guzzlers. I had been paying over $200 per month for my daily commute. My first month of operation of the ZEV was $14.86.
    And finally the batteries. Most people’s thoughts about the batteries fall under the term “range anxiety”. Ranges and the number of charging stations to support them are improving. You can comfortably commute, round trip from ABQ to Santa Fe without experiencing range anxiety. Miles per charge are now in the 84 to 350 mile range.

    However, these are lithium batteries and I agree that they do have externalities in production along with un-realized waste disposal challenges. There are efforts to invent and produce different kinds of non-rare earth based batteries but they are not a reality at this time…

    The Climate Crisis is a reality NOW. Where I’d prefer better batteries and cleaner production footprint, we do not have the luxury of time to wait for the perfect solution. We need to act now and the ZEV is a great solution in a time of crisis… but only if everyone gets up and buys one now.

    In addition to becoming ZEV advocates with our friends and family we are also working to inspire our legislature to pass meaningful legislation that provides tax incentives along with infrastructure improvements to help make the ZEV the top selling car in our state. I hope you all will consider to join these efforts.

    • If you want to advocate for expansion of tax credits for ZEVs, you might want to join our meeting on Aug 6, 6:30-8:30pm at 1420 Cerrillos. We have a research team that could put energy into that and you could be part of it. You might also consider signing up for our alerts as they are used to alert people statewide about bills pending that are among our supported bills and a tax credit for ZEV would certainly be among those bills.

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  8. See the NYT business page B2 item of 8/3/19: “Volvo Electric Cars Adopt a More Ethical Metal”. The company is producing its cars with recycled cobalt and is monitoring cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo (source of 2/3 of world’s cobalt). “Carmakers are under pressure to prove electric vehicles do not rely on conflict minerals or child labor”. So at least one EV manufacturer is paying attention! How many other users of cobalt can say that?

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