At the start of the 20th century Thomas Edison had big plans for getting us from A to B. He promised the world a car with “no dangerous and evil smelling gasoline, and no noise”, in other words he would give us… electric vehicles. As it turned out, Henry Ford got there first, and provided mobility to the masses in 1908 with his Model T Ford, notwithstanding the smell and noise of his internal combustion engine.

Now finally, more than 100 years later, the time of electric powered cars has come, propelled by our concerns over pollution and made possible by the development of the lithium-ion battery.

I recently drove one of the lithium battery revolution’s most sophisticated offspring, a Genesis GV60. This product of South Korean car maker Hyundai’s luxury vehicle division is the 2023 What Car? magazine car of the year. The GV60 was certainly green – a retina-scorching “Sao Paulo Lime”, to be precise. But was it green – you know: environmentally responsible, sustainable, all those things that EV makers would have us believe? Well, yes and no.

It’s beautifully built and lovely to drive. Passengers are ensconced in Nappa leather seats and computer-controlled suspension. It accelerates with neck-snapping speed (zero-60 mph in 3.8 secs if you press the “boost” button) while maintaining its pampered occupants in a cathedral-like hush.

It can’t escape EVs’ inherent problems. They’re tall – they have to be, to fit the battery under the floor. The batteries are very heavy – and very costly, which means EVs are expensive. To justify the price tags, manufacturers have tended to promote them as high-end vehicles, with more power than they need and lashings of luxury tech and trim. These no-emissions vehicles are not yet transportation for the masses.

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EVs’ efficiency and energy consumption is drastically affected by the outside temperature as well as driving conditions: in the Genesis, I managed 225 miles on a full charge, compared with the claimed 290 miles. They’re much more efficient at stop-start town trips than they are when travelling at motorway speeds. This is because EVs only have one gear and that lack of higher gearing – which would be fifth or sixth gear on a traditional car – means they are less efficient at speeds over 60 mph, which makes their blurry speed all the more pointless.

Newer EVs such as Citroen’s ultra-compact Ami, with its battery size just a 10th of most current electric cars, hint at a more utilitarian future, and mass EV ownership – which is surely good news when it comes to reducing emissions globally. But navigating the road to a car-driving greener planet is not that simple.

Demand for the key ingredient in today’s car batteries, the alkali metal lithium, is already sky-high. The world could face shortages of the metal by 2025, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But the process of collecting lithium brings its own challenges. This mineral resource is concentrated in a handful of places; lithium mining is water-intensive, but more than half of today’s production is in areas where water is scarce. And it needs to be dug out of the ground. The energy for this is usually derived from – guess what? Burning fossil fuels.

The electricity grid that charges EVs’ batteries is still largely reliant on fossil fuels, too. Until these fuels are replaced by renewables, EVs will be responsible for harmful emissions. There has been progress: the UK has cut carbon emissions from electricity generation by almost 40 per cent since 2019. Norway and France get almost all of their energy from renewable sources such as hydroelectric and nuclear power. There’s a long way to go on the global scale, though.

But if you must buy a car, the bottom line is that EVs still cause less environmental damage than petrol or diesel engine cars when you measure their emissions over their lifetime.

In 2021, Reuters estimated that a Tesla Model 3 EV in the US had to be driven 13,500 miles before it was less harmful to the environment than a Toyota Corolla.

The IEA’s calculation suggests, however, that only a huge transition to EVs will really help our environment. It says two billion EVs need to be on the road by 2050 for the world to hit net zero.

symbol indicating a place to charge an electric car with energy in Catalonia Spain
EVs are expensive, and the batteries are costly (Photo: Carlos Sanchez Pereyra/Getty)

Sales of EVs were about 10 million last year, bringing the total number on the world’s roads to just 16.5 million, meaning they still only make up around 3 per cent of passenger cars globally, so this hoped-for transition has an awfully long way to go.

Professor Peter Wells, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University, dismisses IEA’s two billion-EVs figure.

“This is complete nonsense,” he says. “The environmental cost of building so many EVs would be horrendous,” he says. “And that’s not to mention the geopolitical strains this would create between China and the West in the race for the metal components”.

He thinks the solution is not just fewer combustion-engine vehicles, but less car use, full stop.

Two billion EVs would certainly require a vast amount of ore to be dug out of the ground. And not just lithium. Already the extraction of other essential battery components, particularly cobalt, have had ugly costs.

Poor local miners – including tens of thousands of children – in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, supplier of 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, have mined the metal in horrendous conditions. An Amnesty International report in 2016 documented how, using basic hand tools, miners dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground; accidents are common. Despite the potentially fatal health effects of prolonged exposure to cobalt, it said, “adult and child miners work without even the most basic protective equipment to supply leading manufacturers”.

As Henry Sanderson notes in Volt Rush, a new book on the global race to harvest minerals for the electric-car age, “the sheer numbers of people working by hand and in poor conditions were not what polite German car executives expected when they launched a drive to end the era of fossil fuels.”

They probably shouldn’t have been surprised that locals in one of the poorest, most corrupt and lawless countries on earth would be exploited in the rush to gather something that rich countries wanted. One woman in DRC told Amnesty International investigators how she was having to carry 50kg sacks of toxic cobalt ore.

“We all have problems with our lungs, and pain all over our bodies,” she said. That doesn’t sound like the future we’d hoped for.

Chinese companies – now the dominant force in EV battery production – are responsible for processing 90 per cent of the cobalt mined in Congo. One firm, Huayou Cobalt, relied heavily on what was dubbed, perversely, “artisanal mining” – as if mining were like producing specialty artefacts rather than paying locals $2 a day to dig for sacks of toxic metal ore 70 metres underground.

Following the Amnesty revelation, US tech giant Apple had second thoughts about buying the Huayou‘s cobalt. Huayou promised changes and said it would become an “ethical leader in ethical sourcing”. Despite this, Sanderson says in Volt Rush that Huayou probably continues to buy from artisanal miners. The Chinese firm has a contract to supply Tesla until the end of 2025.

Benoit Nemery, a toxicologist at KU Leuven University in Belgium, who has studied the damage caused by mining for cobalt by hand in DRC, says in Volt Rush that “sustainable cobalt mining in the DRC is still a utopia”.

Other crucial battery components bring cause for concern. For example, the toxic waste produced in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia from nickel mining. Sanderson writes that in 2021 the Indonesian government facilitated new nickel mining projects even before environmental impact assessments had been approved.

Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s head of business and human rights, warns us not to believe everything we read about the dark side of EV production. “In the US, in particular, the fossil fuel lobby has been aggressively attacking the EV industry over its environmental record and whipping up anti-China rhetoric,” he says.

Genesis has officially confirmed that the GV60, the brand?s first electric car for Europe, will be available to pre-order soon. The GV60 is the sixth model in the European line-up and the first dedicated electric car from the premium luxury Korean brand, which will be available later this year. Pic: Genesis News https://www.genesisnewseurope.com/english/news/all-electric-genesis-gv60-coming-to-europe
Crucial battery components bring cause for concern (Photo: Mark Fagelson/Genesis News)

One US lobbying group, the Heartland Institute, which has received almost $800,000 from oil major ExxonMobil, according to the oil giant’s corporate donation disclosures, published an article last year saying “EV buyers should be aware that they may be contributing to the pursuit of “blood minerals” to achieve their efforts to go green. The article fails to mention our ongoing climate disaster and the epochal levels of pollution-related illness and premature death caused by the fossil fuel industry.

“Our message is that the shift to EVs is part of an essential move away from fossil fuels,” says Mr Dummet. Nonetheless, he says battery and EV manufacturers must do better: “There has been too much damage to the environment and human rights, and manufacturers have got to put in place more responsible business practices. This applies, too, to ambitions for deep sea mining that have the potential to cause “catastrophic damage” to the ocean bed.

And there are two key problems that flashy EVs can’t resolve, no matter how clean and green they are. Our cities don’t have room for them. And many people can’t afford them; EV use is not equitable. According to Phineas Harper, director of Open City, a charity dedicated to making cities more open, accessible and fair: “We’re living in a fantasy world if we think EVs are the answer to our traffic and pollution problems. If we are serious about improving health, safety and liveability in our cities then then all car use has go down.”

Many in big cities don’t own cars – most typically, poorer people, who can’t afford them. Harper points to census data that shows 41 per cent of London households have no car at all (in the particularly deprived borough of Tower Hamlets 66 per cent of households don’t own a car or van). He thinks this level of car ownership does not justify the provisions made for driving. At nearly 20,000 hectares, 12.4 per cent of land in the capital is taken up by roads – significantly more than the just 8.8 per cent of London currently used for housing.

The road safety issue seems, if anything, even more pertinent with the rise of the eclectic vehicle. In September the insurance group Axa said its statistics indicated that EVs were 50 per cent more likely to be involved in traffic accidents than petrol and diesel engine cars, probably due to their super-fast acceleration that catches drivers, particularly those new to such cars, unaware and leads to collisions.

Matthew Carmona, a professor of planning and urban design at UCL, concedes that EVs do help reduce pollution locally. This is a huge benefit for people in towns and cities being slowly poisoned by nitrous oxides and particulates in exhaust fumes (although EVs do produce some particulates from brakes and tyres). He thinks that further technological advances might allow more car-sharing, or even self-driving vehicles.

“But if we really want to be more sustainable,” he says, “we will have to live lives that are more local and ones that rely more on public transport.” He says this will inevitably require more road closures. “If you open more roads, then people buy more cars and that leads to more traffic.”

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The move away from personal transport in cars shouldn’t – and won’t – happen overnight. However, he thinks the demise of the roads and car use along with it will be sped by the move to “densify” cities again. When homes and facilities are too spread out, the costs of providing public transport for all become too great. Hence the move among urban planners to “densifying” urban centres. If the concept appears as unattractive as the verb used to describe it, Carmona insists that “densified” areas need not be horrible or unliveable. “With good urban planning and with the extra space and improvement in safety and the environment brought by fewer cars they can be desirable places in which to live.”

Norway is pioneering a transition from combustion-engineered vehicles to EVs; the Norwegian Parliament has decided that by 2025 all new cars sold should be zero-emission (electric or hydrogen). But this hasn’t stopped it also clamping down on car use, at least in urban environments.

Carmona cites the Norwegian capital as an example of what can be achieved, by removing cars. Oslo has removed most parking spaces and closed roads making the entire centre – 1.9 square km inside the inner-ring-road – totally carless. In 2019 it recorded zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths in 2019. It is the only major city in the world to achieve this.

Despite all this, the car – the increasingly sophisticated four wheeled metal box that allows those who can afford one to travel in ever more comfort and safety – is not about to disappear. Norway might have banned cars from the centre of its capital city, but it is improving charging facilities for those in EVs who make longer distance trips. EVs are here to stay. Like the washing machine and smartphone before them, they will eventually become more efficient and more affordable.

If the 20th century was the age of the combustion engine vehicle, the 21st will be the era of the EV. But don’t expect to be able to drive when or where you want it. The car – even in electric guise, and particularly in urban environments – will no longer be king.

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