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Electric vehicles 'dirty' secret

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

I have previously explored the green energy options available and we learnt that New Zealand has a great green energy resource in Hydroelectric dams. It would seem that the New Zealand government's push towards electric vehicles might be sound due to New Zealand's relatively green electricity grid. However, electric vehicles have a very dirty secret. We have all heard of or seen the movie Blood Diamonds, but consider the wider issue of 'blood minerals'. Electric batteries, including the batteries in our phones, laptops and electric vehicles require lithium, cobalt and other metals to be mined.

poor water quality
poor water quality

Cobalt mining has been linked to the exploitation of child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), worsened by armed conflicts since the 1960s which continued into the 1990s with the Rwandan Genocide violence and an ongoing war between Government forces and rebel groups. A UNESCO report found that 17.4 percent of the working population was aged 5-14, and a further 16.3 percent were combining work and school. The worst forms of child labour were in the category of forced mining operations along with forced domestic work and commercial sexual exploitation.

Without a stable Government 1000s of artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) erupted. As of 2008, the World Bank estimated that ASM supported 16 percent of the DRC. The Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC) was established in 2018 in an attempt to address issues with artisanal cobalt mining which can employ child labour as young as five. Violence against women has also been linked to a method with which to control access to resource-rich areas. A study by Hayes and Perks, (2012) found that 50% of the ASM workforce consists of women making ASM a critical income opportunity for local women. However, an empirical study by Raphael Deberdt found that the closer a woman lives to an ASM the higher likelihood of sexual violence.

We as consumers of electronics, new electric vehicles and laptops get to be sheltered from the horrors of a child needing to work to support the family. In 2021 Tesla, Apple, Google and Microsoft escaped a class-action suit undertaken by International Rights Advocates argued that multinational companies should be held responsible for human rights abuses within their supply chain. Ford, Vodafone and Google blamed subcontractors for not assessing where their suppliers are getting their consumables, while Tesla and Volkswagen are attempting to remove cobalt from their supply chain.

The Congolese Government has attempted to reconcile the issues woman and children face with artisanal mining, as it agreed to participate in the OECD International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR)’s mineral certification scheme in an attempt to control ASM production. But there are areas of contested land where ASM's scar the land, and they are controlled by armed militia determined to retained the spoils of the minerals abundantly available in the DRC. But if we as consumers continue to accept that our electric vehicles and cellphones have a dirty secret, then why would a multinational stop buying along that supply chain?

electric vehicle

On top of the child and human rights abuses, electric vehicles leave a larger carbon emissions footprint than you might think. This is due to the mining and manufacturing processes, through to how we use the product and what happens to the product when we buy a newer model. The manufacturing of an electric vehicle contributes 13 tonnes of CO2, 3.2 tonnes of that being the lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide battery. New Zealand's electricity grid is derived from *84% renewable energy, therefore, the emissions in use are considerably less. An electric vehicle in another country with access to less renewable energy would have a higher CO2 output in the use phase. In contrast, a combustion engine vehicle derives emissions from both upstream and the tailpipe.

Engine type

Life cycle phases

Manufacturing phase

Use phase

Recycling phase

Electric vehicle

10.5 tonnes CO2

251g CO2 per km

1.8 tonnes CO2

Combustion vehicle

13 tonnes CO2

​25g* CO2 per km

2.4 tonnes CO2

In the race to replace fossil fuels Lithium is used not only in batteries but to store wind and solar power. Lithium has transformed our society to rely on our devices and our electric vehicles, yet the 'blood minerals' such as Lithium are the new trap that we once found ourselves in with fossil fuels during the industrial revolution. The largest producers of Lithium are Australia, Chile and China. Lithium mining requires a lot of water, which can then poison reservoirs and has led to an increase in respiratory issues and has altered the continuous Earth-to-Atmosphere circulation of water on our planet.

Overall, we as consumers have demanded that multinational companies take better care of where our consumables come from. Our consumer lifestyles are fueled by the blood, sweat and tears of those far less fortunate than us, but we like to not think about that. However, even if we took up the challenge to downshift our lifestyles, we don't really have to give up the good life, just modify it to make sure we know where our products come from and put pressure on those who supply us with those goods. Yes, I understand we have increasing interest rates and pressure on our lifestyle could already be too much for some to bear, but the United Nations found that 53 percent of consumers believe that companies can do more than governments to solve social issues. Businesses can make a difference, and asking your customers what causes they care about can assist in driving real change. More is not always better, and we should not ignore the 'dirty secrets' of everything we consume.

Let's try to make better choices, and demand better from businesses.

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