The Irish Government has committed to seeing one million electric cars on Irish roads by the end of the decade. Many people are sceptical about whether such lofty ambitions were ever realistic, but the number of electric cars registered for the first time more than doubled in 2021. Even if these numbers are achieved, the electric car is not a solution to our environmental problems, it is a solution to the motor industry’s problem.
Electric vehicles are no way certain to always be a better option in terms of emissions. Modern cars are finely engineered machines and if the electricity that is used to power your brand new green machine is generated from coal, it may turn out to emit more carbon dioxide than one of the petrol-hybrid cars that are so popular in Ireland. (However, studies suggest that the average electric car in Europe is not subject to this criticism.)
Lithium-ion Batteries Devastate the Environment
But there is a more fundamental problem with electric cars. The lithium-ion batteries that power these cars are reliant on vast flat mines in the poorest parts of the world, which extract the essential element in a process that is devastating to the environment.
Aerial photographs make these lithium evaporation sites look quite beautiful. Their vivid colours come from the different levels of lithium concentrate in the flats. But the process to extract them degrades the soil, uses vast amounts of water, and emits significant greenhouse gases. As yet, there is little investment in the collection and recycling of these used batteries, so when discarded, their toxic contents seep into landfill sites.
Obviously, there are also environmental problems with the extraction processes that we rely on for the fuelling of internal combustion cars. But the damage caused by lithium mines is significant because people will shift to electric cars under the impression that they are environmentally better – which they are – but they are still destructive. The devastation wrought in the Atacama Desert really does intersect with the best intentions of the commuter in the Irish midlands. Assessing the ethical weight of our choices requires us to be informed about the reality in which those decisions are made.
Published earlier this year, a new book considers these questions in detail. Edited by Caesar A. Montevecchio and Gerard F. Powers, Catholic Peacebuilding and Mining includes input from legal scholars, environmental scientists, economists, engineers, and theologians to posit that since mining is so essential to life as we know it, we must examine what it does to the planet.
Global Supply Chain Implicates Us All
American ethicist Vincent Miller’s chapter calls the mandate for solidarity that arises when we learn that the supply chain connecting lithium extraction in the tip of South America to your weekly grocery shop represents “the most powerful and robust network that has ever existed”.
Miller links the harm done to these overlooked communities in remote corners of the world to historical colonial projects. Elizabethan England ransacked Ireland for its natural resource of wood and the Conquistadores arrived in South America to extract gold. He is not suggesting that modern mining is colonial – “Contemporary mining is often undertaken voluntarily, by a variety of actors, from artisanal miners and medium-scale lightly mechanized enterprises, to the mega-scale projects of major mining corporations” – but if we tell the full story of how we get our shiny new electric car, that larger story is an essential part of the plot.
From Miller’s perspective, learning about the reality of lithium mining is an invitation to grow by acting in solidarity with people who live near these mines and the environment harmed by them. Listening to these people and making future decisions based on that is a much more radical response to environment damage than buying another new car.
If you must drive, electric cars are an improvement on internal combustion engines. Public transport, cycling and walking are infinitely better, but if by the end of the decade we find that our roads are dominated by cars that spew no greenhouse gasses, it is a clear improvement. Awareness of how they are manufactured should remind us that there is no technical fix or consumerist solution to the climate and biodiversity catastrophe.
Our market-driven throwaway culture assumes that growth and consumption are essential to societal wellbeing. Until we dig ourselves out of that particular hole, we are still on a road to nowhere.