The dark side of going electric

Electric cars – in fact electric everything – is pushed by the environmental movement as one vital part of the solution to climate change. True, electric gives out less emissions than diesel or petrol. But the push to electric also highlights one of the main issues associated with looking at environmental issues in silos.

As we move towards more renewable energy, electric cars, more electricity to power phones, personal computers and cloud based server farms, demand for battery power is soaring. This, in turn, is pushing demand for cobalt and lithium – key components of battery technology. And here’s the rub. Cobalt prices have soared. Cobalt is mined mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is dominated by Chinese mining companies. They use open mining techniques that are environmentally damaging, cause widespread pollution, and they routinely use child slave labour.

One mine inspector claims to have pulled 36 bodies of miners in cobalt mines over the last several years. Miners and locals are exposed to heavy metals at toxic levels. One study found that residents who live near mines or smelters in southern Congo had urinary concentrations of cobalt that were 43 times as high as that of a control group, lead levels five times as high, and cadmium and uranium levels four times as high. The levels were even higher in children. Birth defects, thyroid disease and breathing problems are rampant.

Similar issues are arising from the mining or rare earths used to make solar panels.

The normal response is that these practices should be stopped. Mining companies should operate to the best international standards and manufacturers should check standards all through the supply chain. But everyone knows that this is pie in the sky – at least for the next several years, if not decades.

So what is the right balance? How do we balance the rush to electric and to renewables with the environmental damage and human misery that this causes.

There is no easy answer and we should stop pretending that there is. Cobalt and other rare earths are the new blood diamonds. And we’re all consuming them like there’s no tomorrow.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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