There is a lot of excitement over electric cars and how this technology could help us transition away from gas-powered vehicles, which continuously pump carbon into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change. Electric cars create far less emissions, so encouraging electric car production seems like a no-brainer. But are electric cars actually going to help us save the planet? The truth isn’t so cut and dry. As it turns out, the environmental impact of electric car production is actually very harmful.
The problem with electric cars? It’s not the emissions—it’s the batteries. Electric cars require lithium batteries. Lithium is a metal which is also used to make batteries for laptops and smartphones. Because we’re increasingly reliant on these devices, along with the growing demand for electric cars, lithium mining is expanding. Those of us buying these products aren’t exposed to the effects of lithium mining, but the people and animals who live near these mines are not faring well.
Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium. Companies mine the Salar de Atacama, a large salt flat that sits above an underground saltwater reservoir. The miners pump this briny water to the surface, and when the water evaporates in the sun, lithium carbonate is left behind. The lithium carbonate is then turned into metallic lithium. These companies also utilize local freshwater supplies to clean their machinery.
The villagers who live nearby have witnessed the massive changes in the area since the mining began. The shift is noticeable and tragic. The lagoons have dried up, which means that the local vegetation has also disappeared—nothing can grow without a reliable water source. As the plant life in the area dies out, the wildlife no longer has a food source. Farmers are unable to feed their livestock or grow crops. The lack of a water supply threatens the livelihoods of the villagers, and they fear losing their only sources of income and food, and eventually being forced to abandon their homes.
The companies mining here claim they are committed to sustainability, but the reality on the ground tells a different story. They’re expected to stay under certain quotas for freshwater usage, but they regularly exceed them. And to make matters worse, more corporations want to set up shop in this region. This is a major business opportunity, and these companies will reap huge profits from lithium mining. A similar situation is unfolding in Arctic Norway, where copper mining has dramatically increased to meet the demand especially from the electric car industry. (Electric cars use three times as much copper as regular cars.) Not only does this take away land from the indigenous Sami people and endemic wildlife, mines are allowed to dump the tailings directly into the pristine fjords. The Arctic Circle is already one of the fastest warming places on the planet, driving native peoples and animals to displacement and depression at best and trauma, suicide, and extinction at worst. Mining in these areas “for the benefit of all of us” will only compel these threatened inhabitants further toward the brink.
Around the world, mining corporations are increasing production to great profits, but the environment and local inhabitants are the ones who pay the price for it. Sometimes, the solutions we’re told are “green” aren’t actually such sustainable choices, after all. Unfortunately, electric cars just aren’t as “eco-friendly” as we’ve heard.
The environmental impact for lithium mining for electric car batteries exemplifies why “solutions” to the climate crisis that don’t involve curbing individual consumption will always come up short. If we can’t adjust to the idea of a completely circular economy by making do with less, or simply sharing what we have, we will never be able to make it through. It’s not the answer that anyone wants to hear. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could simply swap our gas-powered cars for electric vehicles and continue on with our usual driving habits? Of course! But that’s not the answer. Sure, it sounds a lot more appealing to the majority of people, but the production of electric cars is still harmful to the environment.
So, what do we need to do? We need to be pushing hard for expanded, efficient, and affordable public transport options. We also need more safe bike lanes and bike-share programs. And while this is a more ambitious, long-term change, we need urban planners to focus on making cities, suburbs, and even small towns more walkable. Ever drive through a town and realize there are basically no sidewalks between the residential and commercial areas? Instead of essentially forcing people into car ownership, let’s make it possible to run errands in your town by simply walking to the store, cycle safely to further destinations, or catch a bus or train to get where you need to go.
It’s true that nothing comes without some kind of environmental impact—manufacturing bikes or expanding public transport aren’t perfect solutions, either. But they are both much more affordable and eco-friendly options compared to electric cars. Yes, driving an electric car sounds a lot more comfortable than taking the bus—but if taking the bus or hopping on your bike are better for the planet, those are the choices we need to make.
Also by Jane: Could A Red Meat Tax Help Fight Climate Change?
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