Electric cars to save the world? Think again

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required could become a major issue in its own right.

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem. …

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier. …

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8 Thoughts on “Electric cars to save the world? Think again

  1. Andrew on 30/04/2021 at 9:22 am said:

    The Democratic Republic of Congo is recognised as providing 1/2 of the worlds demand for cobalt, a mineral used to manufacture EV batteries! Not only do these mines cause massive environmental pollution but it would appear much of the cobalt mined is by children!
    A quote:
    “First, raw materials needed for batteries are extracted at a high human and environmental toll. This includes, for example, child labour, health and safety hazards in informal work, poverty and pollution. Second, a recycling challenge looms over the eleven million tonnes of spent lithium-ion batteries forecast to be discarded by 2030, with few systems in place to enable reuse and recycling in a circular economy for batteries.”

    The response from the Greens was deafening when this was pointed out to them!

    I wonder how many readers are still thinking about purchasing an EV to save the planet from all those emissions? It would seem the “cure” is a million times worse than the “disease”!!

    • Andrew on 18/06/2021 at 3:08 pm said:

      I despair with the quality (of intelligence) of our opposition parties!!
      I spoke to both the National & ACT representatives at Fieldays yesterday about the topic of Labour effectively subsidising mining of both lithium & cobalt that combine to make an EV battery with their new tax on ICE cars & a subsidy on EV’s. Not withstanding the fact that EV cars have 4 rubber tyres & contain roughly 60% plastic componentry which will still require the mining of oil to manufacture!

      ACT’s response was along the lines that “NZ could supply these resources using environmental best practice, and return the economic and social benefits to our regions and communities, plus their Climate policy proposes to reduce carbon emissions only in line with our top 5 trading partners, through the NZ ETS, rather than by bans and regulations on types of vehicles and fuels”

      National didn’t offer any real push back other than claiming it to be another tax on farmers & tradesmen & that they would reverse such legislation!

      When it was pointed out to them that there is no proof of AGW anyway so why the need for such legislation in the first place, all they could say was our trading partners would probably not trade with us which would cause a greater economic problem – besides they say there is no proof there isn’t either!! it was about then I remembered Murphy’s 6th law – “Never argue with a fool, some people may not know the difference!”

      I really worry for the future of NZ not for AGW of course, but the quality of the politicians who run the place today & in the future!

  2. Simon on 19/06/2021 at 2:42 pm said:

    Interesting that neither party rep was prepared to inform you that AGW is provable fact, because this is something that all political parties in NZ agree on.

    • Richard Treadgold on 19/06/2021 at 9:59 pm said:

      Prove it? Too easy. No, you have to prove it’ll be dangerous.

    • Esra Dral on 20/06/2021 at 9:51 am said:

      Hi Simon,

      I think other readers and myself would be very interested in what proof you have the AGW is happening. I have yet to see any real evidence from any of the scientific papers. From what I have read:

      UNIPCC original policy statement. “All climate change is man made. Any natural change is merely variation.”
      UNIPCC. Climate change = natural variation + man’s activities. Natural variation only ever looks at total solar irradiance and this is a very flawed starting point. We now know that there are a number of other climate forcing influences from the sun.
      UNIPCC starting point was Tyndall’s experiment from around 1860 and the assertion by Svante Arrhenius in around 1896 that carbon dioxide is the climate control knob. However, in normal science, it is right and proper to questions these basic assumptions to make certain they are correct, otherwise all subsequent science based on these assumptions may be incorrect and merely compounding any original errors. The premise of current main stream climate science is:
      Carbon dioxide drives climate, therefore there is no reason to research this further – with no real evidence by the way.
      Therefore, as all climate change is caused by carbon dioxide, all consequent research starts from this premise. It’s carbon dioxide wot dunnit g’vner. Therein lies the main flaw.
      This is in spite of the fact that over 400 papers were published last year that showed carbon dioxide is not the villain it is made out to be.
      Please also point out some of the signs of man made climate change so that we may be educated. Also, could you please explain the following:

      According to NASA https://climate.nasa.gov/faq/19/what-is-the-greenhouse-effect/

      “Part of what makes Earth so amenable is the naturally-arising greenhouse effect, which keeps the planet at a friendly 15 °C (59 °F) on average. But in the last century or so, humans have been interfering with the energy balance of the planet, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels that give off additional carbon dioxide into the air.”

      So far so good.

      But according to https://climatekids.nasa.gov/greenhouse-effect/

      “But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius), on average.”

      Mmmm. Same organization, different answer. Bit of a credibility gap here.

      Now we look at the other “credible” source of climate information.


      “Averaged as a whole, the global land and ocean surface temperature for March 2020 was 1.16°C (2.09°F) above the 20th century average of 12.7°C (54.9°F) and the second highest in the 141-year record.”

      So according to the figures that NOAA publish on this website, the average global surface temperature was 13.86°C just over 12 months ago, less than 14 °C and definitely less than 15 °C. According to NASA’s satellite data the average global warming has been 0.14°C per decade. This means that March 2021 would have been around 13.87°C. By March 2031, we might just touch the 14 °C, one of the temperatures we are supposed to be. Alternatively we could get to 15 °C by about 3008, where we are also supposed to be. There is no point in saying that the Earth has been warming since 1880 (Not according to Kramm et al, but that’s another story). According to NASA the Earth should be 15 °C so should have warmed, after all, historically it has been well below their stated average normal operating temperature. This is like getting in to your car first thing in a morning and looking at the temperature gauge. As you are driving along the temperature rises towards the true operating temperature, where the heat input and the cooling balance. But the climate debate seems to be more like looking at the temperature gauge and saying look, the temperature has risen since I started driving so the engine must be over heating. I had better stop. What we also know is that the temperature record used by NASA, NOAA, the IPCC etc starts in 1880. The graphs are freely available. Yet not one of them shows the Krakatoa eruption, which is known to have dropped global average temperatures by 1.2°C, which kind of leads me to believe that the Krakatoa temperature drop is already factored in to give an artificially low starting point, all of which makes the warming look greater than it is.

      According to NASA, the Earth should be 15 °C
      According to NOAA, the Earth is 13.87°C. Lower than it should be.
      Please explain where the warming is.



  3. Andrew on 19/06/2021 at 10:45 pm said:


    Political parties cant prove AGW anymore than you can – so please put up or …….!?

    Nor is your assumption correct – ACT & National are more worried about losing face overseas with our trading partners than trying to understand the carbon cycle & a simple fact that CO2 / CH4 is not an issue at current levels. The Greens/Labour – well they are just deluded & who knows what they think – if indeed they do!
    if you know otherwise please enlighten us?

  4. Esra Dral on 03/08/2021 at 9:11 am said:

    For those of you who haven’t caught up on the news, and the main stream media in New Zealand certainly seem to have “overlooked” this one, last Friday there was a fire in the Tesla mega battery in Victoria. The other interesting part of the story is that the battery only started working on the Thursday night. It took 30 fire trucks, 150 fire fighters and 76 hours to get the blaze under control. That means it burned for nearly 4 times longer than it actually operated.
    “…we cannot put them out with water or anything else. The best way to deal with these things is to let them burn until they are burnt out. If we try and cool them down, it just prolongs the process. …this wind is helping us by keeping it burning fairly freely,” the CFA’s Assistant Chief Fire Officer Ian Beswicke said.
    The ensuing metal contamination blowing over nearby houses and crops included aluminum, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, lead, selenium, manganese and chromium. No one mentioned that some of these battery fires produce HF gas. Breath this in and, when it meets the moisture in your lungs, it turns in to hydrofluoric acid. Even in relatively small quantities, this can be deadly. Tesla Powerwall for your home anyone?
    Add to that, Hyundai issued a warning to all users of their EV’s. Do not charge past 90% battery capacity and, once charged, take your car out of your garage and park on your drive way just in case. Do not let the battery drain completely, with a recommendation not to allow the remaining vehicle range to drop below 112 kms.
    If it wasn’t so bloody dangerous and possibly life threatening ??? The clowns are in charge. What’s the betting we see them all tumbling out of their EV’s like they used to fall out of their Tin Lizzy.

  5. Andrew on 05/08/2021 at 11:21 am said:

    Agree Esra, it is only going to get worse and sooner or later someone will perish in these fires. Of all places the link below was published in Stuff – although it did take 8 months to finally report the story. Just imagine the emissions these things give off as they burn!
    If it takes 2-3 days to put an EV fire out imagine the delays on the Auckland Harbour Bridge and surrounding areas waiting for the fire to burn out if an accident were to happen!

    what I find startling is the warning by Tesla to not leave these cars unattended whilst charging. Really, so on a slow overnight charge up we have to sit and watch as well, I hope Wellington is taking note of these issues


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