The Electric Vehicle Revolution Will Be Dirty and Unequal

Batteries for new cars will require a lot of new mining

Paris Marx
Jun 14 · 5 min read

Politicians love to tout incentives for electric vehicles as a great climate initiative. Replacing gas- and diesel-powered vehicles, they say, will reduce emissions and help us meet our climate targets. It’s a very simple vision of sustainability, but it won’t actually deliver the benefits they promise.

The idea that everything about our societies can essentially stay the same as long as we replace the engines in our two-ton automobiles that transport, at most, a few hundreds pounds of human is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Automobiles do not exist in a vacuum; their very existence requires a particular pattern of development where people are spread out and live far away from work, shopping, and their social network. It’s a very unsustainable way of living, and it’s one that needs to be changed if we’re to really meet our goals — but that’s not all.

There are other elements of the electric vehicle craze that politicians are happy to ignore because it would disrupt their oversimplified narrative:

electrify vehicles → meet targets

The subsidies they fund for electric vehicles primarily benefit the upper class that need them least of all, and the minerals and metals required for their construction will hurt the poorest people on our planet to make decarbonization seem easy for Western consumers.

Rebates for rich drivers

Given that many electric vehicles are still quite pricey, it should come as no surprise that the rebates disproportionately go to well-off buyers that don’t need them, further calling into question whether governments should be subsidizing them at all.

In 2016, U.C. Berkeley released a study of California’s rebates and found that 83 percent of recipients from 2010 to March 2015 had incomes above $100,000. The program also disproportionately benefited white buyers. The government made some adjustments to try to rectify these problems, but it’s difficult for lower income people to benefit when they can’t afford to buy the product in the first place.

A 2018 study by the Pacific Research Institute similarly found that 79 percent of national rebates for electric vehicles went to people with incomes above $100,000 and 99 percent went to those with incomes above $50,000. The right-wing think tank rightfully questioned whether there was really much environmental benefit to the subsidies, but its recommendation that relying on the “free market” would be a better alternative is misguided. The government still has a role, but that money should instead be going to expanding auto alternatives: public transit, cycling infrastructure, and pedestrian spaces.

In most places, electric vehicles are only really accessible to well-off individuals, and the government rebates for their purchase reflect that. While expanding the number of people buying them could allow more people to benefit from the programs, that would come with other problems that don’t make it into the public conversation around electric vehicles: they’d require a lot of new mines in developing countries with poor standards.

Electric vehicles require dirty mining

Visions of our eco-friendly future often feature autonomous electric vehicles as part of a “smart” city where urban systems are tracked by a series of sensors affixed to just about everything. But the people pushing such plans never talk about the other side of their big ideas; the minerals that will be necessary for those vehicles and all the other smart gadgets.

The University of Technology, Sydney recently did a report on mineral sourcing for Earthworks, and what they found should give us pause. Their estimates of the minerals necessary for renewable energy and storage — that includes electric vehicles — estimated the demand for key minerals. It obviously found increases for all of them, but demand for lithium and cobalt would be so high it would outstrip the known reserves on planet Earth.

But considering the necessary minerals isn’t just about rocks; it’s about the environmental and social impacts of mining them. UN Environment’s Global Resource Outlook estimates that half of global emissions come from resource extraction — the mining of minerals and metals accounts for 20 percent of that number — and it’s responsible for 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress. Remember, we’re already causing the planet’s sixth mass extinction because of how we’re decimating the natural world.

However, that’s just touching the surface of the problem. A lot of resource extraction, despite being carried out by companies headquartered in Western countries, happens in developing countries with bad reputations on human and workers’ rights. The Earthworks report details some of the human and environmental impacts of all that mining, including:

  • 40,000 children under 15 years of age working in cobalt mines.
  • Copper mines contaminating soil and water in China, India, and Brazil.
  • Respiratory illnesses caused by the dust released by nickel mines in the Philippines, Indonesia, and New Caledonia.
  • Every ton of rare earth minerals creating 9,600 to 12,000 tons of waste gas, 75 m² (807 ft²) of wastewater, and a ton of radioactive waste.

In a recent piece on copper mining in Latin America, Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz detailed the negative effects on local communities. The mines create tailings ponds secured with large dams to keep in the waste produced by their extraction activities, but on numerous occasions the dams have been breached, killing hundreds and polluting the local environment.

The dark side of the smart future

These are the stories that don’t make it into the visions of eco-cities and smart mobility pushed by tech visionaries. The people who will bear the brunt of supplying the resources to make those futures a reality have no voice in this process, meaning that most people don’t understand the extent of the human and environmental impacts of the false utopias on offer.

Tesla, the electric-vehicle company run by Elon Musk, is already predicting a shortage of minerals needed for its batteries in the coming years with adoption of electric vehicles in the single digits. If more people start buying these cars, that will mean a lot more mines, and a lot more people working in terrible conditions and negatively affected by their environmental destruction.

We need to have a critical and informed discussion about the future. It’s unlikely that a mass adoption of electric vehicles is actually feasible, and minerals may have to be prioritized for other uses, like renewable energies and electrification of other transport modes. A real sustainable future is one that doesn’t involve most people driving vehicles, but instead building cities that allow people to easily get around by public transit, cycling, and walking. Their benefits are far more than environmental.

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.