Global consumers are shifting to electric cars and rechargeable batteries to cut greenhouse gases but serious concerns have now been raised over the environment impact of mining the raw materials used for making these batteries.
The sale of electric cars is expected to jump from three million vehicles in 2017 to 23 million in 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover, growth is expected for rechargeable batteries, with the market to reach 58 billion dollars in 2024, up from an estimated seven billion dollars in 2018.
However, an UNCTAD report said that the expected boom in mining for the raw materials used to make rechargeable batteries raises environmental and social concerns that must be urgently addressed.
“Most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects of electric vehicles. The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight,” UNCTAD’s director of international trade
Pamela Coke-Hamilton said. She said that this was because most of the consumers live in industrialized nations and the lion’s share of the raw materials are concentrated in a few developing countries.
“As demand for lithium increases and production is tapped from deeper rock mines and brines, the challenges of mitigating environmental risk will increase,” the report said
The UNCTAD report said that more than half of the world’s lithium resources lie beneath the salt flats in the Andean regions of Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. The report pointed out that the indigenous farmers and people in the regions are now competing with miners for water in one of the world’s driest regions.
Lithium mining needs huge amounts of groundwater to pump out brines from drilled wells. About two million litres of water is estimated for producing one ton of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, lithium and other mining activities consumed about 65 per cent of the water, causing groundwater depletion, soil contamination and other forms of environmental degradation, forcing local communities to abandon ancestral settlements, the report said.
Artisanal Mines in the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has the world’s 50 per cent of cobalt reserves. It said that about 20 per cent of cobalt sourced from the central African nation comes from artisanal mines, where some 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions. Apart from this, the report also notes that excavation causes several health problems such as respiration diseases and birth defects.
It also said that Cobalt mine sites contain sulphur minerals that could generate sulphuric acid when exposed to air and water. This could devastate rivers, streams and aquatic life for hundreds of years, the report said.
Graphite mining also comes up with similar environmental and health issues. Explosives in mines could blow dust and fine particles into the atmosphere, causing health problems in nearby communities and contaminating soils around the site. Brazil, China and Turkey have about 80 per cent of the natural graphite reserves.
Investing in Green Technologies
The UNCTAD says that investing more in sustainable mining techniques and technologies
that can recycle more effectively the raw materials found in spent lithium-ion batteries can help in reducing adverse environmental impacts.