In Can Electric Vehicles Save the Planet?, featured in the Autumn issue of U of T Magazine, Professor Teresa Kramarz discusses the implications of the increased demand for critical minerals necessary for the production of electric vehicles:
To meet the increased demand for green energy technologies, including EVs and the renewable power needed to generate the electricity to build and operate them, production of lithium and cobalt will need to increase by 500 per cent by 2050, according to the World Bank – and that could pose problems. “Mining has a long history of creating significant environmental harms,” says Teresa Kramarz, an assistant professor at U of T’s School of the Environment and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab. “How are these harms going to be mitigated? Furthermore, how are we going to ensure that the social perils of extractive industries are also avoided?” she asks.
Mining tends to displace people and contaminate local environments. Many critical minerals are found in lower-income countries where, paradoxically, mineral wealth can create huge problems. For instance, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, cobalt mining has contaminated water supplies and cropland, led to a lack of transparency and accountability, and increased forced labour, Kramarz says.
In addition, all the materials that we put in solar panels and batteries will eventually need to be recycled and disposed of properly to avoid contaminating the environment. These include not only the critical minerals, but also heavy metals such as lead, tin and cadmium. “We have to move to a path of decarbonization, but we have to choose that path very soberly, based on what kind of tradeoffs are associated with different options,” says Kramarz.