Perusing through my morning news digest, I came across an article from The Daily Mail featuring a story on the employment of child labor in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
While I can be chillingly apathetic to social plight, especially, when it doesn’t concern my loved ones: something I impute to my upbringing in a third world country; I was deeply moved by this story, which shed light on the horrors of artisanal cobalt mining, employing children, working in dangerous conditions, with no safety measures, and being paid a pittance.
The kicker, though, of this story was that much of this cobalt would go into battery packs that would be installed in electric cars marketed to gullible, do-gooders around the world.
But, why would one want to buy cars that take hours to refuel and can only be refueled at specific points, thus, imposing a massive time cost on their usage? These contraptions don’t match in utility to gasoline-powered cars, let alone surpassing them. No wonder governments around the world are trying to get consumers to buy electric cars through purchase subsidies and tax exemptions of all sorts.
Ever heard of an iPhone or a Mac being subsidized or tax exempted by the government to boost sales? You won’t because products that offer value sell like hotcakes; it’s only products that don’t offer any that need government interventions to hard sell them.
Another way of hard selling electric vehicles is through ‘virtue signaling.’ The sales pitch involves promises of reducing users’ carbon footprint, stemming the tide of climate change, and protecting the environment. But most importantly, it involves washing your hands off of gasoline, a product bloodstained due to the endless wars fought over it, one of the major promulgators of environmental and social injustice and displacement of indigenous folks.
Buying electric cars is thus, a route to salvation, accumulating good Karma, penitence, and all other moral goods. More importantly, it is also a way of segregating oneself from the ranks of the ignorant, irredeemable, hopeless, uneducated folks who drive around in gasoline powered vehicles polluting the environment, melting the ice caps, perpetuating wars and injustice, and pushing the world one step closer to Armageddon. Electric cars make the do-gooders feel good about themselves.
But are electric cars the solution to environmental problems and a way to jack up one’s moral credit score?
Most electric cars run on Lithium-ion batteries because of their energy holding capacity and low-weight characteristics. As environmentalism garners mainstream acceptance and more and more people buy into its narrative, the market for these vehicles is exploding and so is the demand for Lithium-ion batteries.
Contrary to the name, Lithium-ion batteries contain not just lithium, but also cobalt, nickel, manganese, aluminum, and graphite. While nickel, manganese, and aluminum have a relatively stable supply, it is cobalt, lithium, and graphite that present predicaments that are incompatible with the narrative of environmentalism.
Most of the lithium used in electric car batteries is mined in the Lithium triangle of Latin America: an area embedded in the salt flats of Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia. Several mining companies from around the world have started operations in this region, but the news for the indigenous people isn’t good. Lithium is so valuable that it has been dubbed ‘white gold,’ but the local residents bemoan that they haven’t seen any returns from the mining operations flowing their way; despite the fact that the prized mineral comes from lands that are under their possession.
A lack of formal process to negotiate property rights between the indigenous peoples and the mining companies, compounded by lack of accountability and communication gaps has left the communities short-changed. Many indigenous representatives, who excitedly agreed to the mining operations, now regret as they grapple with reality.
One of the companies – Exar – that will begin operations in 2019 is projected to reap $250 million (in 2016 dollars) annually. The contract also requires Exar to make annual payments to the local communities – a clause that the official leader of these communities wasn’t aware of, until one of the reporters investigating the issue, enlightened him.
More worrisome than missing out on the windfall is the fear of water depletion from sources that the local communities depend upon for their survival. Scientists seem divided on this contentious issue. Regardless, locals are justified in their concerns over water, as lithium mining is a water intensive process and the region has faced persistent drought over several years.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), an impoverished country in sub-Saharan Africa, contributes to around 60% of the global supply of cobalt, an essential element in the Lithium-ion battery.
The state of affairs of the artisanal cobalt mines of DRC was the subject of an extensive article in The Washington Post. Miners, of whom children make a significant portion (about 40,000 according to UNICEF in 2012), work in unforgiving and dangerous conditions with hand tools, no safety measures, and very little oversight. Mining accidents and related deaths are common and so are the long-term health effects of coming in contact with heavy metals.
While the DRC has both industrial and artisanal mines, suppliers prefer cobalt from the latter due to the lower cost, especially when global cobalt demand is on the uptick. A major hurdle in disincentivizing artisanal operations is the inability of cobalt to be designated as ‘conflict-mineral,’ as it doesn’t fuel a war or internal conflict.
China’s record on air quality hasn’t been lustrous, with widely circulating reports of smog engulfing its major cities. But the residents of some towns in north-eastern China, much to their despair, literally get to see a special kind of luster in the air at night, when faint light hits graphite particles floating in the air.
Graphite is an indispensible element in Lithium-ion batteries and its growing global demand has lead to China’s rise as the top supplier in the market.
The Washington Post, about a year ago, published a detailed report on the effects of Chinese graphite plants on nearby villages. The presence of graphite dust on crops and in the air presents the likelihood of this toxic substance being ingested or inhaled leading to heart and lung diseases. Locals have also complained of graphite plants releasing industrial waste into nearby rivers, polluting the local water supply. This has significant effects, not only on the human population, but also on the flora that grows around these water bodies.
According to The Post, their efforts to get major firms in the consumer electronics and electric vehicles business to comment on these revelations in their supply chains were met with generic responses of appeasement or refusal to disclose suppliers or complete silence.
But, investigative reports aside, there are two big elephants in the room. First, electric cars can deliver on their claim of reducing carbon footprint, only if they are run on electricity generated from renewable energy. That seems unlikely given that only around 15% of total US electricity generation is from renewable sources (2016); the picture does look brighter across the Atlantic in the EU-28, where renewable sources produced around 29% of total electricity (2015).
The second problem is slightly complex and involves a weighing of the total fossil-fuel based energy and products that go into producing electric cars (from mining to assembly line), including individual components, against the purported energy savings and environmental benefits. In the grand scheme of things, it’s highly unlikely that electric cars will produce a net good or that they will fare any better than regular cars.
Another embarrassing problem for the Church of Environmentalism is the hypocrisy of its clergy. Al Gore, the patron saint of the green movement, according to a recent report, lives in a house that in the past year burned enough energy to power a typical American household for 21 years. Just the outdoor heated swimming pool ended up consuming energy that could power 6 typical homes. This was revealed after the release of his new documentary film, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which has him fly over melting icebergs in an aircraft running on petroleum-derivative fuel.
But Gore claims that his donations to Green Power Switch, a scheme to separate green-minded folks from their money, purge him of his sins towards Mother Nature.
Actor-turned-environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio made headlines when he made a round trip from France to New York to accept a ‘green award.’ The close to 8000-mile long journey, completed on a private jet, didn’t please the environmental laity. But worry not because his charitable foundation, in 2016, pledged £10 million to various green initiatives.
Environmentalism, thus, is nothing but a way to feel good about yourself, to wash off the supposed sins of driving around in a gasoline powered car and using incandescent light bulbs. It’s also a great way to make bucket loads of money and undertake lucrative career transitions.
I don’t mean to suggest that oil drilling and petroleum products are good for the environment and don’t bear any social costs. They might, but they don’t push a holier-than-thou narrative and actually have to undergo strict environmental and health and safety audits, something that is lacking in the supply chain of green products.