The electric car has a secret—it isn’t actually green.
When people say an electric car is green, they are usually comparing it to a regular, internal combustion engine car, and most people are often very quick to conclude that electric cars are environmentally friendly. While that might be true in terms of their absence of exhaust emissions, many people are unaware of the environmental damage that happens as a result of manufacturing.
For instance, electric vehicles are charged by electricity that comes from burning fossil fuels or coal on an industrial scale and therefore cannot be labeled as clean or green. Similarly, manufacturing electric cars in general also burns fossil fuels.
The Toyota Prius is a well-known car globally. It is the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car. We all know it, automatically through advertising, as an environment friendly car. However, very few people know that Toyota acknowledges that Prius production is more carbon dioxide heavy than that of gas-engine cars, according to The New York Times.
Nearly all electric cars are powered by a lithium-ion battery, and cars that are completely electric have no exhaust systems. They function completely on batteries that have a different composition of lithium and other chemicals. Teslas are a popular example of such cars. Many people might be unaware that the heart of a Tesla—its batteries—come from Japan. The electronics giant Panasonic supplies battery cells for popular Tesla cars like the Model S, Model X and Model 3, sending about 3 million battery cells daily.
That requires a lot of lithium, and that isn’t a good thing, as analyst Christina Valimaki of online technology journal Elsevier, said to Wired, “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries.” The demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018.
Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. To obtain it, the flats are drilled to pump the brine to the surface. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted via a chemical process, which isn’t exactly eco-friendly, and the damages it does are not always highlighted and are rarely included in any electric cars’ brochure.
South America is famous for these salt flats. Popularly known as “Lithium Triangle,” the area entails parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal. The extraction process is cheap, but it involves a lot of water—approximately 500,000 gallons for each tonne of lithium.
Local farmers of Salar de Atacama in Chile, for example, who grow quinoa and herd llamas, are already forced to travel for water. To add to this already existing water shortage, mining lithium consumes about 65% of the region’s water.
While water supplies are exhausted in some countries, the water gets contaminated in other places. In Tibet, for example, during the mining process, toxic hydrochloric acid—a chemical among many others that are used in the extraction process—leaked into the local water supply.
In Australia and North America, lithium mining also requires a lot of chemicals like hydrochloric acid, which ends up tampering any local nearby water source. The problem this creates is it compromises any wildlife in the water too. Research in Nevada on chemicals leaking into a local water source found that fish in a stream as far as 150 miles from the mining place are heavily affected.
Lithium extraction processes have unique devastating consequences depending on which country they are being extracted from. Regardless, they all cause air contamination and harm the soil, in some places, leaving the changes irreversible and the lands useless. There is no scope of labeling the extraction of Lithium as green. Chilean biologist Cristina Dorador told Bloomberg, “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining.”
Manufacturers should focus more on transparency of their batteries and not always prioritize profits. Other chemical combination may not be as energy dense as the lithium, cobalt and nickel cocktail, but that does not mean they should not be focused on. In addition, with an abundance of electronics existing, researches like the Faraday Challenge—a government-funded research at the University of Birmingham that focuses on lithium recycling—should be multiplied.
Regardless, in crude reality, manufacturers that make electric cars care about revenue. It is of little interest to them what impact their production has on the environment as long as cars are sold. Yet another example is Tesla’s recent decision to start production in China. Their brochures and advertisements will never highlight how many farmlands were driven to drought, or how they have switched to battery manufacturers that offer lithium batteries at a cheaper price, but at a great environmental cost.