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Living Lightly column

Environmental Problem Shifting

By Alan Hewett

A recent article by comedian Rowan Atkinson, (a.k.a. ‘Mr Bean’), has caused some controversy. Although he has owned an electric vehicle (EV) for nine years he claims have been ‘duped’ as to the environmental benefits. Although he made several errors in the article he has re-ignited the debate about how environmentally sound EV’s are and the broader question of environmental problem shifting.

He cited a study by Volvo in 2021 stating the carbon footprint of producing its electric C40EV was 70% higher than its petrol version. Of course although manufacturing costs are initially higher for EV’s a petrol car will emit far more pollution in its lifetime.

However the energy required to produce EV batteries is huge. As well they are reliant on lithium and cobalt, (which are also vital for solar panels and wind turbines), and the procurement of these materials is challenging.

Now the emissions from fossil fuel production are estimated to be 34 billion tonnes of Co2 annually. The combined totals of cobalt and lithium are 3.8 million tonnes. A big difference but the cost of producing these materials has significant effects on both the environment and people.   The main source of lithium is brine mining. Salt-rich water is pumped to the surface into a series of evaporation ponds. The water slowly evaporates leaving a brine with concentrations of lithium.

Chile is the second- largest producer of lithium in the Atacama Desert. Brine mining has resulted in the drying up of water resources, damaged wetlands, and affected indigenous communities.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, provides 70% of the world’s cobalt. Some is mined in conjunction with copper and nickel but the majority is obtained by artisanal miners working informally in unsafe and atrocious working conditions.

We all realise that there has to be a drastic de-carbonisation of our economies and electric vehicles are a vital part of the transition away from fossil fuels. There have been attempts to construct batteries without lithium and cobalt. There are also major attempts to utilise renewable energy sources to power mining operations and in the manufacture of EV’s.

The move to a sustainable energy future must not be at the expense of developing countries and Indigenous people. It is not fair they bear the cost of environmental problems created by western nations.