It’s a hot new ticket item, electric cars… E-Mobility
However, rapid transitional reliance onto electric car batteries has inadvertently created other sustainability issues by the automotive sector which requires some further consideration.
Motivated by collective objectives of reaching net zero emissions, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and general eco-friendly intentions, a global transition from internal combustion engines (ICE) to battery electric vehicles (BEV) continues to increase substantially, more so in recent years.
The Sales Pitch
There are compelling reasons why people are switching to electric vehicles:
- Cheaper out of pocket expense – aside from higher upfront purchase costs, charging an electric vehicle, on balance, costs less than filling up a conventional petrol or diesel tank;
- Reduced maintenance– electric cars’ powertrain consists only of an electric motor and a battery pack. Essentially, less parts equals less servicing and maintenance, whereas ICE vehicles, comprised of engines, transmissions, spark plugs, pistons and other things only a mechanic would actually know of (or care about), are onerous to maintain;
- Eco-friendly – electric vehicles discharge less carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions and are less air polluting than conventional internal combustion engines.
Noble intentions, these are also great selling points which appears to have worked in the eyes of consumers.
Three million electric cars were registered in 2020: 1.4 million in Europe; 1.2 million in China; and approximately 295,000 in the United States alone.
US$ 120 billion dollars was spent on electric car purchases in 2020, almost doubling the total consumer spend calculated in 2019. China’s automakers are striving towards a national mandate to have 40% of all vehicle sales by 2030 being for electric cars.
Similarly, in 2020, governments around the world have spent approximately US$ 14 billion on electric car purchase incentives and tax deductions.
Furthermore, the fact COVID-19 didn’t result in unreasonable disruption to the BEV expansion indicates that electric cars are here to stay and aren’t a mere passing fad.
However, high consumer interest has placed peculiar pressures on automotive manufacturers to keep up with growing demands of electrification and geo-politics amongst the heavy hitters are experiencing foreign political tensions, industry infrastructure and jobs.
With a booming market for electric vehicles, projections of employment growth within the automotive sector is apparent. However, to remain competitive, automotive companies are required to shift resources towards their electric fleets.
This is having an adverse impact towards the blue-collar gas-powered vehicle line workforce in favour of engineers who are specifically trained to deal with these electric models.
Large-scale layoffs are foreshadowed due to the different kind of workers being needed.
An electric vehicle requires code, software engineers are priority hires to write the code, although there’s a shortage of them. In the United States, a Bureau of Labour Statistics report confirms a present-day shortage of this type of skilled worker, a shortage which is expected to grow to almost 1.2 million by 2026.
While powered and recharged by electricity, manufacture of the electric car battery itself still depends on lithium-ions. Obtaining the critical chemical element still requires mining which causes harm to the environment.
Propelled by a transition towards electric vehicles, coined ‘white gold,’ lithium’s global demand is expected to rise over 40 times by 2040.
The world’s largest lithium reserves are found in Chile, accounting for 8 million tonnes followed by Australia with 2.7 million tonnes, Argentina with 2 million and China with 1 million.
Concerningly, global reserves of the element are estimated at 14 million tonnes which equates to 165 times the production volume in 2018 and set to go up.
Depending on which country of production is being focussed on, lithium is either ore mined, or extracted from salars – salt-deserts that process the mineral through evaporation and chemical recovery.
Put simply, drills are inserted into the ground to pump up brine that’s soaked up the lithium under the soil and spreads it out across surface-level ponds. As the sun’s heat evaporates the liquid, salt precipitates down and the liquid that’s left contains high concentrations of lithium.
This ground disturbance, as reported by Friends of the Earth, stipulates that this extraction process inevitably harms the soil and creates air contamination, negatively affects communities where these processes takes place and jeopardises people’s access to clean water.
Whilst research is being undertaken to identify either an alternative other than lithium, or at least a chemical supplement not requiring ground extraction, no solid solutions have yet been discovered.
Ninety percent of electric batteries at present are built in three main countries: Japan, Korea and China. Given this concentration of manufacturing output in Central Asia, geopolitical tensions over the control of the critical resource is at hand, particularly given taught relations between China, the United States and Russia.
The lithium extraction required to build the batteries has already triggered litigation against mining proponents in the United States, Serbia, Tibet and Chile in regards to socio-environmental degredation and Indigenous land grabs alongside rising geopolitics strain for lithium supply, especially in developing countries that do not have a robust regulatory system.
Minor Dents on Fossil Fuel Reliance
Energy analysis firm, IHS Markit, estimates that by 2026, electric vehicles globally will have reduced oil demand by 1.1 million barrels.
Although, majority of world-wide oil demand is still utilised by commercial and cargo airplanes, trucks, industry and other non-road users, none of whom would be affected by electric cars being used for individual mobility.
So, while having a Tesla or any other electric car may be a good talking point amongst friends, how does any of the above information, if at all, influence your purchase decision?
Might it be more responsible to keep driving that slightly beat-up ICE vehicle you have until it genuinely breaks down instead of financially supporting an imperfect alternative?
Is it still worth buying an electric car if you live in a city with decent public transport infrastructure, withholding your implicit enabling of the harsher sides to BEV manufacture?
Let us know your thoughts.