electric car


In the remote landscapes of Chile, the Australian outback, and the plains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the earth is undergoing a transformation – peeled back, water sucked up, and dried out – all in the pursuit of minerals essential to satisfy the burgeoning demand for electric cars across the globe.

Detractors of the shift away from fossil fuels often highlight the scars left on the earth by the quest for battery minerals. In this exploration, we delve into the myths, realities, and grey areas surrounding the common criticisms of electric cars. So do electric cars face a mining problem?

The extraction of battery materials is poised to escalate significantly, leaving behind a trail of mining operations often accompanied by local environmental degradation. Figures like Nigel Farage have raised concerns about the environmental strain arising from the mining activities required for electric cars.

The impact extends beyond the environment, as reports from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International reveal instances of child labor and exploitation of artisanal miners in cobalt mines in the DRC.

Sensational headlines, including “Electric cars are made of pollution and human misery” and “blood batteries” driving the electric vehicle transition, contribute to the narrative of a dark underbelly associated with the pursuit of minerals for electric cars.

The International Energy Agency estimates a substantial increase in mineral demand for heavy batteries, with electric cars using 173kg more minerals like lithium, nickel, and copper than their petrol counterparts, excluding steel and aluminium.

Benchmark Mineral Intelligence forecasts a quadruple increase in global demand for lithium, a key battery metal, reaching 3 million tonnes by 2030, surpassing available supply.

However, when considering the entire lifecycle, including oil extraction, the mineral use of electric cars is significantly lower than that of petrol and diesel vehicles. Transport & Environment (T&E) highlights that a petrol car consumes around 17,000 litres of oil in its lifetime, equivalent to about 12.5 tonnes.

Moreover, a crucial point often overlooked in criticisms is the potential for recycling the majority of battery materials used in cars, leading to a drastic reduction in wasted materials compared to fossil fuels.

David Bott, the head of innovation at the Society of Chemical Industry, said: “The real thing people forget is once it has been mined, you will end up being able to reuse 80-90% of the metals. You don’t have to go back to the planet to steal more minerals.”

T&E’s data indicates that after recycling, the waste from battery materials over an electric car’s life is projected to be around 30kg by 2030, roughly the size of a football. This figure excludes any fossil fuels burned for electricity generation, underlining that the true mineral toll will remain higher until countries achieve complete decarbonisation of their electrical grids.

Julia Poliscanova, T&E’s senior director for vehicles and e-mobility, said: “By 2030 we will need around 30m tonnes of critical minerals [for batteries]. It’s very, very substantial, but if we put this in comparison, we used in one year 15bn tonnes of fossil fuels.”

Auke Hoekstra, an energy transition researcher at the Eindhoven University of Technology, notes that while 0.1% of the Earth’s habitable land is used in mining, less than 0.01% is dedicated to battery minerals.

Despite these small percentages, the quantities involved are substantial, including 130,000 tonnes of lithium, as reported by the US Geological Survey. Nonetheless, this pales in comparison to other materials, with 2.6 billion tonnes of iron ore mined for steel in 2022 and 4.4 billion tonnes of oil.

For fossil fuels “the sheer amount of material we need to get out of the ground is bigger and everlasting,” Hoekstra said. “At least with batteries you have a chance of making it circular.”

It is undeniable that many global resource supply chains conceal egregious human rights abuses. Companies, including mobile phone manufacturers like Apple and automakers such as BMW, are taking steps to address these concerns by tracing supply chains and implementing measures like “battery passports” to inform consumers about the composition of their batteries.

Mark Dummett, head of business and human rights at Amnesty International, acknowledges the presence of human rights abuses associated with various industries, including the battery and oil sectors. He emphasises the need for the mining industry to seize this moment for reform.

“These problems have always existed in mining,” Dummett said. “I strongly believe that this problem has been exaggerated hugely by opponents of the energy transition, the fossil fuel lobby.”

And the alternative will not mean less mining. Caspar Rawles, the chief data officer at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, said: “It always makes me laugh. OK, the mining of EV [materials] is harmful. Where do you think your car now comes from?”

The available data strongly suggests that resource extraction for electric cars will be substantially lower compared to their petrol or diesel counterparts as recycling efforts intensify. However, the responsibility for addressing abuses in the supply chain cannot be absolved solely based on the green credentials of electric cars.

Dummett hopes that the mining industry will leverage this moment to instigate meaningful reforms.



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