By COOPER BARD
Electric cars are not a shoe-in for solving the climate crisis for the simple reason that the parts required for their construction (in particular the batteries) involve exceedingly wasteful methods of production. First, this production process involves the mining of necessary metals (such as lithium, cobalt, or nickel) using environmentally harmful methods. The lithium in question is packaged and shipped to factories in China that assemble car batteries, which are in turn packaged and shipped to factories in places like the United States. This obviously involves a great expenditure of packaging waste and the burning of carbon fuels. Second, rare earth metal mining has always been exploitative of labor in the global South.
Companies like General Motors, Volkswagen, and Tesla foster the prestige of electric cars as an “environmental” solution. Ultimately, however, this is just marketing gloss. Electric cars cannot solve the climate crisis for many reasons, most being endemic to the nature of a society dependent on personal automobiles, rather than quality mass transit.
Lithium mining and the Nevada land struggle
Up until recently, the United States relied exclusively on foreign sources of lithium, with some of the world’s largest mining operations being from Argentina and Chile.
Now, U.S. capital is making very large investments into local lithium mines. Within the first three months of 2021, Wall Street made $3.5 billion in investments into mines such as the one at the Salton Sea or the Thacker Pass claystone project, both in Nevada. These vastly exceed three previous years of investment . This reflects U.S. capital’s need to maintain valuable sources of metals as it competes with major competitors in tech such as China or European countries. It also is a symptom of the growing demand for electric vehicles.
Lithium is not found naturally in its metallic form, as it is very reactive . Therefore, it must first be separated in mass from lithium minerals or lithium salts. The mine at Thacker Pass will extract lithium by the following method: Clay dug up from what is essentially an exploded mountain is mixed with 5800 tons sulfuric acid a day. The process will require over 3200 gallons of water every minute. The site, operated by Lithium Americas, will generate over 350 cubic yards of mining waste laced with the sulfuric acid . Groundwater may also be contaminated with toxic materials. Anyone who declares this an environmentally safe solution has an odd perspective on environmentalism!
The other common method of lithium extraction, such as at the Salton Sea or at vast salt flats in South America and Portugal, is to use a solar-powered evaporation process in brine pools to extract lithium from lithium salts. This process uses a lot of acreage and a lot of water, and chemical contamination of local drinking water is a danger—especially in arid climates. For example, in order for UK companies to provide lithium for the batteries in its cars, Portuguese nature preserves are encroached upon . At the same time, the brine pools themselves offer mixed environmental results, being toxic to many organisms, although also providing a niche to others*.
The Lithium Americas mine has received the ire both of local ranchers, who have filed lawsuits, and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, who have delivered petitions and protested the site, as well as organized a 273-mile-long prayer run to promote awareness. The contamination of groundwater, which could last as long as 300 years, is an immediate threat to the drinking water of humans as well as cattle. As with the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota , U.S. capital, in its drive for profitability, has scorned the environment and Indigenous rights. Whereas Line 3 served the capitalist hunger for oil, Lithium Americas serves its hunger for lithium. The earth suffers as a consequence.
Indigenous Americans are all too familiar with this process and have become the vanguard of the struggle for environmental rights across the country. This is unsurprising given that Indigenous peoples are always on the front lines of environmental exploitation, as industrial development is put on their lands. This has been commonly referred to as “environmental racism” and affects the Black community as well.
China as battery manufacturer
The main provider for Tesla’s car batteries is a Chinese company called Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), although they don’t supply Tesla exclusively and manufacture a wide array of batteries . China holds only 5% of globally identified reserves of lithium and not all of it is accessible with current technology. As of August 2020, it produced only 1100 megatons of lithium for global supply (3rd global supplier), but receives most of its lithium from Australia, which produces 47,000 megatons (as the major global supplier). Chile produces 17,000 megatons (the 2nd largest supplier) .
This means that in order for a company like CATL to produce car batteries, it must first import the lithium. This in turn means that the lithium mined in, say, Australia, must first be packaged for transport (after the mining process, which uses similar methods, as described above). Then it must be transported. Once the batteries themselves are manufactured, they must then be transported to the United States to be assembled in a Tesla factory. This inevitably requires the burning of fossil fuels.
Finally, it should be noted that disposal of the car batteries is not always done in an environmentally holistic way. Lithium batteries may release toxic chemicals if simply dumped in a landfill. In order to sleep well with electric vehicles, one must ensure that governments provide proper recycling alternatives to the batteries. Indeed, even current charging stations for Tesla vehicles are connected to city grids that run on fossil fuels, so the carbon savings are minimal at best.
All of these things must be taken into consideration when looking at the holistic impact of “green cars” on the environment.
Is a real green solution possible?
This may all seem at face value to imply that green economy is impossible. This is not so.
The culture of advanced capitalist countries is predicated on the image of personal private wealth and status, and the automobile is the exemplar of this culture. This is particularly true in the United States. This is not an inevitable product of progress but has been a systematically manufactured by automobile companies.
This leads in turn, through lobbying and propaganda, to the growth of asphalt roads and the decline of quality mass transit, which greatly encourages the use of cars. Yet now that a new environmental consciousness has been growing, critical examination of cars as a source of carbon pollution inevitably requires the car companies to change tact, and begin the slow but (for them) necessary propaganda process of encouraging the buying of “green cars.”
This, as demonstrated, will not save the environment. Like a monkey’s paw, we will trade carbon pollution for the destruction wrought by lithium mining. To replace every vehicle in the United States with an electric equivalent would be another environmental disaster entirely.
Moreover, privately owned cars put the burden of insurance, initial costs, repairs, fuel, and legality on working people—who frequently have no other transportation options. The poorer a person is, the more necessary and more difficult getting a car can be, especially for those living outside cities. Without a car, however, your options for work are severely limited due to scarce mass transit. Furthermore, 1.3 million people die every year in automobiles worldwide (the equivalent of one 9/11 catastrophe every day), and 38,000 Americans die in cars every year . By comparison, air, rail, and road mass transit combined killed less than 1600 Americans in 2019.
Of course, ride sharing with a publicly owned fleet of cars can allow us to use the electric vehicles that currently exist in a more equitable manner. The U.S. would not need to produce a lithium battery for 300 million people if we only needed 10 million cars to get people where they are going.
The most thorough solution would be to provide infrastructural alternatives to cars and trucks. We must make a transition to methods of mass transit that are much more dense than what we see in the United States today.
One bus—whether diesel, hybrid, or electric—can efficiently transport 50 people. A train or tram connected to a renewable city electric grid will provide clean transit to thousands of people over the course of a year. Mass transit has the dual advantage of being both more accessible (and more equitable) and more efficient. Pound for pound, trains, trams, and buses require less and do more.
The current dependency on automobile transportation perpetuates our dependency on the oil magnates and their virtual monopoly on providing energy. Rather than allowing these capitalist barons to re-brand themselves, it would serve the interests of working people over the world to expropriate the oil and automobile companies—as well as the banks and the entire financial system—and employ their capital towards re-engineering a smarter and cleaner transit network that runs on renewable energy.
Developing quality and comprehensive mass transit is by no means an easy task and will require years of planning headed by a government of the working people. But the end result will be worth it, and we won’t have to blow up mountains or use all the fresh water in arid lands to “save” the environment.
This is to be expected with most human industry and in particular “environmental” projects. Earth is essentially a super-organism, composed of millions of species that evolved by natural selection. It is impossible for humans, moving forward, to create utterly perfect conditions for all conceivable life forms. This would be utopian. Brine pools are a good example of how nature can respond to human engineering, for better or worse. Certain species of endangered water birds flourish near human-created brine pools. Yet these pools are toxic to most microorganisms and are inhospitable to plant-life. The human species must learn to create a new relationship with the earth as a whole so as not to destroy itself and the ecosystem. Then humans can actively spread and advance life with its economic activity, rather than destroy it.
 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/business/lithium-mining-race.html NY Times reports on Nevada lithium projects.
 http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2010/ph240/eason2/ — A Stanford study of the science behind lithium.
 https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/dec/08/the-curse-of-white-oil-electric-vehicles-dirty-secret-lithium — Conflict between local environmentalists in Portugal and UK lithium capitalists.
 https://socialistresurgence.org/2021/01/11/line-3-tramples-the-environment-and-scorns-indigenous-rights/ — Heather Bradford reports on the Indigenous struggle against Line 3.
 https://www.forbes.com/companies/contemporary-amperex-technology/?sh=294074e76333 — Details on CATL
 https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/battery-metals-investing/lithium-investing/lithium-production-by-country/ — List of world’s leading current suppliers of lithium.