Unmasking the dark side of electric vehicles
Electric vehicles (EVs) have been hailed as the future, and the Government plans to ban the sale of all new conventional fuel-powered cars and vans in the UK from 2030. But are they too good to be true?
Not pitch perfect
EVs will not save the climate. At least not on their own. While the benefits have been hailed over and over, EVs are a double edge sword. Mining causing significant environmental damage, recycling problems and concerns around forced labour, dominate the headlines. Also, transparency in supply chains remains problematic.
Levent Ergin, Global Chief ESG Sustainability Strategist at NYSE-listed Informatica, acknowledges that battery passport compliance for EV manufacturers and distributors will be a massive challenge, as the industry strives for greater transparency.
“Transparency is not a choice. It’s a responsibility,” he says. “Transparency isn’t simply achieved by ‘doing due diligence’ on the supply chain.
“Instead, manufacturers must understand, manage and master data to understand all the individual components that come together in the making and use of lithium batteries. Only then can true transparency be achieved.”
While EVs offer a promising alternative to combustion engines in terms of emission reduction, concerns remain. Namely, EV production is unsustainable. The operational carbon footprint of EVs may be lower, but the production, especially of the batteries, has a significant carbon footprint.
EV manufacturing requires minerals, and much of the mining will continue to take place in the developing world, with unacceptable environmental and health consequences.
More, more, more
Ownership of EVs is rapidly increasing. By 2030, the International Energy Agency estimates that 125 million vehicles will be in use worldwide, with that number perhaps increasing to double if governments speed up the pace of legal change. Positive statistics abound and electric and hybrid vehicles drove emissions from new cars in the UK down to a record low in 2021, according to new data.
However, Audrey Denis, Strategy Manager at Cubic Transportation Systems, says EVs bring a multitude of challenges in the pursuit of net zero, not least an increasingly unmanageable congestion problem.
“The rapid increase of cars will require more road building – which in itself will cancel out 80% of the carbon savings from a switch to electric over the next 12 years, analysis shows. If the use of electric vehicles reaches 80 % by 2050, this would also require an additional 150 gigawatts of electricity for charging them, which risks offsetting the positive climate impacts.
“Difficult to produce on a commercially viable basis, electric vehicles are currently largely unaffordable to the mass market. Unless this changes, it’s an undoubtable thorn in the side of the government’s ban on selling petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030,” she adds.
From an environmental perspective, everyone in the EV battery supply chain needs to understand the impact mining lithium has on emissions and local communities, according to Ergin.
“EV battery production emits far more CO2 than fossil-fuel models, meaning EVs must be driven for longer before emissions can be offset. To evaluate the environmental impact, car manufacturers need to find new ways of sharing and collecting cell data throughout the entire lifecycle – from production, through to usage and recycling,” he adds.
Amnesty International says human rights abuses, including the use of child labour, in the extraction of minerals, like cobalt, used to make the batteries that power electric vehicles are undermining ethical claims about the cars.
Bindiya Vakil, the CEO and Founder of Resilinc, reveals that many of the largest automakers’ supply chains are compromised, with violations often being found deep within the sub-tiers.
“How lithium-ion batteries are sourced is a real concern for EV manufacturers because numerous materials involved in their manufacture, including iron, steel, aluminium and copper, are sourced from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This region is particularly vulnerable to human rights violations, so this is a widespread problem the industry is currently facing,” she adds.
Resilinc data revealed year-over-year increases in forced labour warnings and citations, highlighting that Legal Action alerts, including human rights violations, increased by 69.5% from 2021 to 2022. Violations increased again by 10% between H1 2023 and H1 2022.
According to Denis, pursuing transit-first policies is the best way to cut car dependency and shift travellers to public transit.
“With the right tools, passenger behaviour can be changed – or ‘nudged’ – to make an impact on traffic and pollution. That’s where digital mobility comes into play: solutions that can synchronise siloed transport systems across the mobility network, enabling regional, national, and international stakeholders to collaborate effectively and make well-informed decisions.
“This allows us to connect everything, from local buses to ridesharing to traffic management, to provide one efficient, coordinated journey. As an example of how this might encourage proactive tactics, we might use dynamic congestion pricing to reduce traffic on days with poor air quality. This will help to make sustainability a reality,” she adds.
Reducing private car use, claiming back the use of valuable road space for things such as better footpaths for pedestrians, new cycleways, and bus rapid transit lanes, and making cities more liveable, equitable, healthy and sustainable, is the way forward, according to Denis.
“This is an essential factor when considering a genuinely world-leading and competitive green agenda,” she advises.
Walk the walk
Validating supply chains to ensure fair labour practices is essential. By using autonomous AI mapping, EV manufacturers and those within the supply chain can gain greater visibility over their supply chains through insights into multi-tier supply networks. This is crucial to identifying which suppliers may be operating in high-risk regions, as well as how significant non-compliance may be throughout the supply chain.
“From a social perspective, manufacturers need to be confident there is no forced labour or use of conflict minerals when lithium is being sourced.
“They need to understand whether there are policies to avoid forced labour and have documented evidence that shows the appropriate controls have been applied,” according to Ergin.
Even if EV production becomes sustainable, safe, and standard, it is not a silver bullet solution. The goal should instead be to rethink mobility in general, rather than replacing every car, van, and lorry with an electric one.