30. November 2020 | 05:50 CET
BYD, dynaCERT, NEL ASA - an ARTE report gets to the bottom of the environmental sin of electric cars
Electric cars, wind turbines or solar energy systems: Green technology promises us a clean future. But how much "greenwashing" is in the statements of companies and politicians? What is the true environmental footprint of electric cars? The investigative report "Umweltsünder E-Auto?" by Jean-Louis Perez and Guillaume Pitron for the European television channel ARTE takes a look behind the scenes, comparing Norway, the green model country, as well as dirty industrial wastelands in China or Chile. The conclusion of the film is sobering: It is not the green revolution or perpetual progress that will solve future problems, but rather sacrifice alone. However, there may be other alternatives in between.
time to read: 13 minutes by Nico Popp
How the "green revolution" makes us dependent on China
If the car industry has its way, electric cars will become a mass product. To this end, EUR 225 billion is expected to be invested in electric cars by 2023. The reasoning of the carmakers is simple: First, production of electric vehicles is expensive, and the purchase is reserved for the well-off. But with technical progress, unit costs are falling, and electric cars are affordable for everyone. As the creators of the report quoted from representatives of the automotive industry: the electrification of mobility offers only advantages. But is that true?
A whole range of raw materials are needed to get electric cars on the road: lithium, cobalt, copper or even graphite. Even wind turbines or photovoltaic systems cannot do without these critical raw materials. These raw materials are mined in only a few countries in the world - many of them have no claims to environmental protection or the protection of workers. "In the past it was oil, but today we are in the process of becoming held hostage again," the film says and turns its attention to China. Around two-thirds of the world's demand for graphite is produced there.
Graphite is particularly important for green-tech companies. But the conditions for workers in China's factories are poor, occupational safety is not comparable to Western standards, and the number of respiratory diseases is high. The air is full of hydrofluoric acid, which is considered a contact poison and can even be directly fatal in high concentrations. As well Graphite mining is extremely polluting to the environment and can contaminate water supply and kill fish.
As can be seen in the reportage "Umweltsünder E-Auto?", residues of the raw material are still detectable many kilometers away from the graphite factory and contaminate agricultural land. "The waste is lying around everywhere like garbage," comments one farmer, while in the background a dump truck is dumping overburden into a pit. "Of course, this annoys us. Very much so. They don't take any responsibility. There is nothing we can do. They are big. We are small. You don't fight back, or they'll handcuff us. You have to see it with your own eyes to understand it."
Copper in demand as never before in the next 30 years, thanks to Green-Tech
China has thousands of production and storage sites for rare metals. In the vicinity of these factories, residents often move away, leaving behind entire villages. Although the authorities would punish environmental violations, these usually continue as soon as representatives of the central government no longer keep an eye on the production sites. In the wake of the "green revolution", analysts expect a sharp increase in demand for rare earths. "For some rare earths, the demand is increasing by 25% every year," quotes "Umweltsünder E-Auto?" a Chinese industry expert.
In addition to rare metals, large quantities of conventional metals are used in electric cars, wind turbines, etc. A wind turbine consists of approximately 20 tons of aluminum and up to 500 tons of steel. An electric vehicle can contain up to 80 kilograms of copper - roughly four times more than a combustion engine. In general, copper is an essential metal for green-tech companies, as copper plays a vital role in line infrastructure, or charging stations for electric cars. Olivier Vidal, Head of Research at CNRS Grenoble, sums up the dimensions: "Since the beginning of humankind, we have produced between 800 million and one billion tons of copper. In the next thirty years, we will produce that same amount again if we continue the current growth. The demand is gigantic."
Mining in Chile: For some it brings work, for others it brings death
To satisfy this demand, not only China but also other countries rich in raw materials are experiencing developments worthy of consideration. The makers of this report look at the Chuquicamata copper mine in the north of Chile. About one kilometer deep, heavy equipment has eaten its way into the rock. The project is regarded as the largest open-cast copper mine in the world and is profiting from the increasing global demand. In 2020, 470,000 tons of pure copper are to be refined there. Chuquicamata also provides work for many people in the region. The other side of the coin: heavy metals pollute the environment, and water consumption is high in the already arid region. But since about 10% of Chile's jobs depend on copper mining, the environmental damage is ignored. Yet the damage is more significant than it appears at first glance.
Even in the industrial port of the city of Antofagasta, many kilometers away, high levels of heavy metals are detected in the air. Representatives of the local university hospital have detected these at schools and kindergartens, among other places. The number of cases of lung cancer is rising rapidly and affects almost one in ten of the city's inhabitants. The example of Tocopilla shows that environmental pollution and the consequences of the mining industry do not occur exclusively in the vicinity of the mine. There is a coal-fired power plant there that produces electricity for the gigantic open-cast mine. "For some, the power plant brings work, for others it brings death," summarizes a mother whose teenage son died of cancer. Fernando San Roman, former Mayor of Tocopilla, adds: "The mining industry is all about production - at any cost."
Norway as a model country - also in the suppression of facts
Suppose representatives of the French energy supplier Engie, who likes to boast of its sustainable orientation in Europe, are confronted with the environmental damage caused by the coal-fired power plants operated by Engie in Chile. In that case, the answer is evasive: support Chile in its energy turnaround, but wait for an appropriate time, according to a representative in the film - given the recent commissioning of a new coal-fired power plant, this time does not yet seem to have come for the European Company in Chile. Chile itself wants to get out of coal energy by 2040.
A contrast to China or Chile is Norway, the model country for electric mobility. All newly registered vehicles there are to be emission-free by 2025. Today, electric cars are already omnipresent in the country, which is due in part to comprehensive support programs and subsidies. Anyone driving an electric vehicle in Norway saves on tolls and VAT when buying a car, and parking spaces are generally free of charge. There are currently around 400 electric filling stations in Norway - by 2025 there should be 8,000.
The Norwegian public and government are ignoring the fact that large quantities of copper and other metals are needed for this. The film even talks about electromobility as a religion. Henrik Schiellerup from the Norwegian Geological Commission also sees hypocrisy in Norway's behaviour: "The politicians know where the minerals come from, but that is less important to them than the idea the electrification of mobility." The film "Umweltsünder E-Auto?" comments on Schiellerup's statement as follows: "For the government, the calculation of CO2 emissions seems to end at the borders of Norway."
For European politics, the e-car has become a religion
The film also shows that governments and business decision-makers are subject to a particular path dependency when it comes to the topic of e-mobility, even when looking back at the past. Since the 1990s, global warming is increasingly recognized as a problem. Since climate-damaging gases at that time were mostly attributable to traffic, electric motors quickly became the obvious solution.
Yves Cochet, French Green politician and former environment minister, recalls the public debate at the time and how lobby groups from the automotive industry drummed up support for electric mobility at UN summits on climate issues. At that time, the electric car - although hardly more than a distant fantasy - became the epitome of a virtuous world. To be able to evaluate the possibilities of electromobility, the French state agency Adene was to write an objective report. Participants in the roundtable discussions at that time report today, on how representatives of the automotive industry fought back then against looking at the entire supply chain, including the extraction of raw materials, when assessing electromobility.
In the end, after a delay, the Adene Report on electromobility was published. The conclusion: "The report does not come to the conclusion that e-cars are clean vehicles". Years later, the agency became even more explicit and described e-cars as harmful as classic combustion engines.
E-cars: The future - or just a temporary solution?
In addition to the raw material requirements for the production of e-cars, "Umweltsünder E-Auto?" also cites the current energy mix as an argument against electric mobility. Europe still generates energy from fossil fuels. Jean Syrota, former head of the former utility Cogema, early on made electric cars responsible for more CO2 emissions than classic combustion engines. But politicians at the time did not want to hear his words either. Nicolas Meilhan, the scientific consultant at France Strategie, sees the unshakable belief in the technology as the reason.
"The electric car has become a religion," he says. "If you now admit that it may not be the be-all and end-all, which in a way also applies to solar cells and wind turbines, then all the government's talk of electromobility saving the planet collapses like a house of cards. In twenty years, we will wake up because CO2 emissions will have continued to rise, and the e-car will have changed nothing. The next energy crisis is therefore inevitable," says Meilhan dryly.
However, if you confront representatives of the automotive industry with these views, like the makers of the film at the Geneva Motor Show, you will be met with little understanding. Many representatives do not want to comment on production conditions in China or the energy mix in Europe. Only Pascal Ruck, European Head of Lexus, sees electric mobility as "probably only an interim solution" and is not sure whether the technology will last. Such doubts are not getting through to the governments of France and Germany. Both countries have launched a significant project for joint battery production and have earmarked EUR 3 billion in subsidies for 2019.
As the film "Umweltsünder E-Auto?" makes clear, such projects are also driven by the hope for jobs - but the great power China, the largest producer of raw materials for critical metals, also has the best prerequisites for dominating battery production. Companies like BYD are already market leaders in the manufacture of electric cars. In 2018, 250,000 electric vehicles rolled off the assembly line at BYD - just ten years ago, BYD was no more than a small battery manufacturer.
"The Chinese know how to win a tough competition"
That Europe can compete with China thanks to subsidies must also be doubted against the background of recent economic history. After the turn of the millennium, photovoltaic systems were considered a technology of the future. The governments of Europe gave subsidies, and a flourishing industry developed - until China ruined the market with dumping prices and triggered a wave of bankruptcies.
Arnaud Montebourg, former French Minister of Economics, sums up the experience with China as follows: "The Chinese destroyed the European solar industry, and now they have a monopoly. While the Americans protect their economy with punitive tariffs, the Europeans have had their solar industry taken away. Are we actually crazy?" French magnesium mining and processing has also been ousted by Chinese competition in recent decades.
The metal, which could also play an essential role in many green technologies today, has not been mined in France for a long time. All that remains of once-prosperous regions today are lonely and structurally weak villages. "The Chinese know how to win a tough competition," a former representative of the French magnesium industry told the film.
Countries like Chile or Bolivia must seize opportunities at any price
Indra Overland of the Norwegian Institute for International Relations believes that the "green revolution" could also turn the existing economic order inside out and expects a growing "commodity nationalism". The opportunities for sustainable change, she says, force countries like Chile and Bolivia to seize the opportunities of the time at any cost to move their economies forward. According to current estimates, Bolivia is sitting on 50 to 60% of the world's lithium deposits. Since the demand for lithium could increase 20 times over in the next 15 years, as shown in the film, the country has enormous potential.
Bolivia has long since decided not only to sell primary natural resources, unlike Saudi Arabia's oil, for example, but also to process its raw materials. Bolivia has already won China as a strategic partner. As the film concludes, countries like Bolivia are more likely to be driven by the dream of future prosperity than the vision of an ecological future.
"The economy drives the energy turnaround - these are not benefactors"
But even at the self-proclaimed sustainability pioneer, Germany, not everything is going well concerning "green" technology. The first generation of wind turbines is currently being dismantled. Every year, 20,000 to 30,000 tons of them are dismantled - and, as is not uncommon in northern Germany, they lie dismantled in the landscape. In the film, critics already draw parallels to the unsolved search for nuclear repositories.
In general, recycling does not seem to be very far off at Green-Tech. Although rotor blades and metals, such as aluminum, are reused, the proportion of rare earths recycled is practically zero, as engineer Philippe Bihouix from the Momentum Institute explains in the film. The reason: The material from China's mines is still cheaper - at least when only the monetary costs are taken into account. Environmental activist Randy Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network summarizes the dilemma: "The economy drives the energy turnaround. These are not benefactors."
Our conclusion: Innovations must be holistic
Our summary of the ARTE reportage by Jean-Louis Perez and Guillaume Pitron is further confirmation that innovative environmental protection must be viewed holistically in order not to fall into disrepute as a political deception. The experts of the German engineering association VDI recently came to the same conclusion in their study "Ökobilanz von Pkws mit verschiedenen Antriebssystemen". Anyone who wants to protect the environment must also consider where the energy and raw materials come from, how they are mined, processed and transported.
Companies dealing with alternatives to electric cars, with batteries as energy storage, are dynaCERT and NEL. dynaCERT from Canada, a CleanTech Company, has developed a technology for retrofitting existing diesel engines. The patented devices bear the name HydraGEN (TM) and produce hydrogen on board as needed on demand and not stored under pressure. The hydrogen is added to the combustion in the engine via the air supply, as a catalyst, which in turn increases the efficiency of the engine. Fuel consumption and emissions of pollutants are significantly reduced, according to measurements. Another significant advantage is that no vehicle replacement is necessary.
The technology has already convinced the United Nations and the Company has been included in the "United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities" program. Around 200 cities worldwide have already joined the program, including capitals in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and North and South America, to promote environmental protection.
The Norwegian Company NEL ASA focuses on the production and sale of hydrogen as an energy carrier in mobility. The advantage of this storage technology for vehicle propulsion with electric motors is that no large battery is needed. Also, the filling process takes as long as with gasoline or diesel. Another advantage is that a network of filling stations is sufficient, as is already the case with existing fuels. There are currently around 14,000 filling stations in Germany. Against this background, equipping private households with charging points to create the conditions for infrastructure for electric cars with battery storage is a dubious and costly path to take.