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Guest Post – Electric Vehicles Scar Our Environment – By Laks Ganapathi of Unicus Research

We’ve spent the last decade or so hearing about how electric vehicles would save the environment. EVs have been marketed as zero-emission vehicles and have benefited from both generous government subsidies and increasingly stringent regulations on conventional internal combustion vehicles. At Deep Knowledge Investing, we’re always interested in high-quality research that challenges conventional wisdom. When everyone is certain of something that might be incorrect, there’s often an opportunity to make money.

Laks Ganapathi of Unicus Research has been investigating the EV sector, and years ago, correctly predicted the impending bankruptcy at Fisker ($FSR). Her work both challenges the dominant narrative, and has been accurate. For the environmentalists in the crowd, I’d like to point out that Laks isn’t in favor of pollution; but rather, is pointing out the negative impact that EVs have on the environment which are unreported in the media.

The work that follows is hers and if you find it compelling, you can find more of Unicus’ research at their Substack.

 

EVs Scar our Environment

Last week, we published FSR 0.00%↑ a death machine.

What consumers expect from electric vehicles (EVs) does not match what manufacturers are delivering. EV intenders want 20-minute charging times, a 350-mile driving range, and to pay less than $50,000 for a car with decent insurance and maintenance price points. The EV market can not deliver that.

Despite borrowing trillions of dollars for “green” subsidies, the United States will not have the infrastructure in time to meet the administration’s proposed climate program.1

According to a Boston Consulting Group study, only one EV on the market—the Hyundai Ioniq 6 SE RWD Long Range model—meets those thresholds: charge, range, and price point. See the below image:

On average, automakers lose about $6,000 on each EV they sell for $50,000 after accounting for customer tax credits. In addition, auto manufacturers are burning billions of dollars, causing environmental havoc while manufacturing cars that consumers will not buy. Over the next few weeks, we will share:

EVs scar the environment far worse than ICEs

Mining (Lithium, Cobalt, Manganese, and Nickel)

-Ecological devastation & Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Vehicle Whole Life Carbon Emissions Analysis (03/27/2024)

The Process

75% of the world’s total CO2 emissions propelled in recent years by Asian economies come from road transportation. India contributes about 291 million tonnes of CO2 out of the 795 million tones emitted in Asian economies. CO2 emissions from the transportation industry alone experienced a threefold increase in the last decade. In response to this, the electric vehicle (EV) market has expanded. Given the rise in fuel prices and the promise to deliver a green alternative to traditional combustion engines, EVs have gained incredible traction in recent years.

EVs are marketed as having negligible impacts on the planet when compared to standard cars. It is incorrect.

EVs cause environmental damage as much as ICE cars, if not more, due to the demands of power supply, manufacturing processes, materials extraction, and waste disposal. While the principle of lower emissions is certainly commendable, the environmental impact of battery production is still up for debate.

There are several categories of EVs, including hybrid electric and fuel cell electric vehicles as well as battery electric vehicles (BEV). A simplistic paradox concerning EVs and combustible engines: U.S. carbon emissions per mile for a battery electric vehicle (BEV) are, on average, only about 45% less than those from a gas-fueled vehicle of comparable size. That’s because fossil fuels still generate the dominant share of electricity in most markets, and the manufacturing process for EVs generates considerably higher emissions, mainly related to battery production. However, BEVs in some U.S. regions, notably including coal states like West Virginia, could generate nearly the same level of emissions as standard vehicles over their lives. A focus on thorough infrastructure revamping is ignored in our country.

The Institute for Energy Research2 describes how powering the 98 charging bays in the world’s largest Tesla charging station “takes something solar can’t provide — diesel generators.”

There are two primary environmental costs relating to an electric car – the manufacturing of batteries and the energy source to power these batteries. To understand the advantage an EV has over the Internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle, we must analyze each step of production and not just look at the final product. The manufacturing process begins with building the chassis using a combination of aluminum and steel; emissions from smelting these remain the same in both ICE and EV. However, the environmental impact of battery production begins to change when we consider the manufacturing process of the battery in the latter type.

The Mining

Lithium

The mining and processing of minerals is critical to manufacture lithium ion batteries for EVs. There is not enough lithium to go around. While you can mine more, there are only a few companies that take the ore and process it into the high purity metallic lithium required by industry.

Lithium mining also has adverse impacts on the environment. “The lithium extraction process uses a lot of water—approximately 500,000 gallons per metric ton of lithium. To extract lithium, miners drill a hole in salt flats and pump salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface. After several months the water evaporates, leaving a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts that are then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool. After between 12 and 18 months of this process, the mixture is filtered sufficiently that lithium carbonate can be extracted.” The airborne salts from the evaporation ponds have causes wide spread damages to plant and animal life in the Atacama deserts of S. America an, in one of the driest parts of the worlds consumes 65% of the regions water. Salts leaching into local streams have cause detectable pollution as far as 150 miles down stream. While many western investors and mine operator are anxious to open lithium mines, the environmental regulations will dampen their enthusiasm. Lastly, China’s SOE mining companies are buying stakes in lithium mining companies across the globe including, mining operations and mining claims in Australia, China, Argentine, and Peru. Just as the west weans itself off Middle Eastern oil we become dependent on Chinese batteries.

The process of mining remains intense and invasive, and operations often leave large environmental impacts on the local surroundings as well as wider implications for the environmental health of the planet.3

A single lithium-ion electric vehicle battery pack (a type known as NMC111) uses around 16kg of lithium, 46kg of nickel, 46kg of cobalt and 43kg of manganese.4

Cobalt

48% of the world’s reserves in cobalt are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 2016, Amnesty International has denounced cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo for human rights violations and the use of child labor. The report showed that children were involved in mining the metal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and that miners without protective equipment were risking their lives tunneling in hand-dug mine shafts. The gloss used by some firms call this type of mining “Artisanal Mining. In reality it is children and slave labor that produces as much as 20% of the cobalt.

In April and May 2019, a team from the German institute traveled through the provinces of Haut-Katanga and Lualaba to conduct a study with employees of the Congolese mining authority and representatives of civil institutions. They visited 58 small mines, most of which are operated illegally on the outskirts of large mining operations.5

The field research team found an estimated 2,500 children in 17 of the 58 mines they visited. The children worked in 11 mines, collecting and sorting ore and helping to wash it. The observers often found it difficult to tell whether the children were forced to work or were only present, either because their parents were working there or because the mine was located in a residential area. In one case, however, the team discovered 120 children who had to perform hard labor.

A landmark legal case was launched has been launched against the world’s largest tech companies by Congolese families who say their children were killed or maimed while mining for cobalt used to power smartphones, laptops and electric cars, the Guardian can reveal.

Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla have been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in Washington DC by human rights firm International Rights Advocates on behalf of 14 parents and children from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The lawsuit, which is the result of field research conducted by anti-slavery economist Siddharth Kara, accuses the companies of aiding and abetting in the death and serious injury of children who they claim were working in cobalt mines in their supply chain.

Manganese

The manganese deposits all are located in known corrupt countries. Transparency International rates all of these countries near the bottom of their list. 80% of the world’s manganese deposits are in South Africa (69) or the Ukraine (117). Manganese is essential to iron and steel production as well as batteries. Manganese is a key component of low-cost stainless steel formulations and certain widely used aluminum alloys. Manganese dioxide is also used as a catalyst. Manganese is used to decolorize glass and make violet colored glass. Potassium permanganate is a potent oxidizer and used as a disinfectant. The U.S., Japan, and Western Europe are all nearly deficient in economically mineable manganese. Additional significant deposits exist in: Gabon (129), Georgia (45), and Burkina Faso (86).

While manganese is a common and abundant element and trace amounts are need for the health of most life forms, manganese can be come toxic in larger quantities. Most manganese environmental hazards have come from open pit mining where the dust is blown about as well as from mine run off contaminated local streams and lakes.

Nickel

Has a different limiting problem. Most nickel mines are running at near maximum capacity. In 1990 the world mined 1mm tons in 2020 it is estimate that the world mined 2.7 mm tons. Nickel mine are typical 1-2% nickel and 98% waste material. The waste material has become a disposal problem. Many mines in Indonesia do not dump waste material into the open ocean. The Philippians closed nearly half of the nations nickel mine citing environmental concerns. There is a real concern that these mining techniques use to up the nickel supply for “clean batteries” will taint the image of clean technology.

Graphite

Graphite has long been of strategic importance for manufacturing many different end products, from gaskets to batteries. China is the world’s largest miner of graphite producing some 650,000 tons per year. They are followed by Mozambique, 120,000 tons, Brazil 95,000 tons, and Madagascar, 47,000 tons. But even this is not enough to keep up with domestic demand. China graphite imports are now up over 2,000%. China is now importing graphite from Mozambique and Madagascar.

The unseen impact of graphite mining is the release into the air of a large amount of fine airborne particles. While carbon is not in and of itself hazardous, it is how they mine the carbon that causes the problems. Mining graphite involves the use of explosives to crack open the rock joints and to expose the graphite. The amount of explosives used in this process is often more than what actually is required and therefore ends up creating damage to unintended areas as well. This process also results in the release of dust and very fine particles of Carbon into the atmosphere causing air pollution. This can lead to the deterioration of the health of workers and people living in the vicinity.

The material problems

The electrification of transport and the construction of new clean energy like solar are vital components of curing the carbon problem. But they come with their own novel and potentially show-stopping environmental and ethical costs, and these must urgently be grappled with by those of us who call for climate action at a rapid rate.40

China is the dominant player in the EV market for batteries. No EV car maker can manufacture and deliver cars at the intended price points without a deep sobering look at the power of China over battery manufacturing.

Despite their clean appearance, EVs still require significant carbon dioxide emissions to operate.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The destruction of vegetation and soils when land is cleared for mining results in the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Another important consideration relates to the quantity of greenhouse gases released per unit mass of mined material, as some less concentrated mineral deposits require proportionally higher energy usage. For example, mining a kilogram of diamond produces around 800,000 kg CO2e compared to a kilogram of a highly abundant mineral such as iron which produces only about 2 kg CO2e.

The creation of products from mined materials uses high amounts of energy throughout the different stages of the production chain and most of this energy is currently sourced from the burning of fossil fuels.

Diagram showing the life cycle of a product made from mined resources where each stage contributes towards the product’s total carbon footprint.

Ecological devastation

The environmental fallout from lithium mining is clear and far-reaching. Massive quantities of fresh water, classified as a precious resource in these arid regions, are diverted for lithium mining operations, fueling the salt flats brine. This leaves local communities and wildlife parched. Sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide used in lithium extraction penetrate the soil and water, poisoning ecosystems and endangering species. Research from the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society shows that two flamingo species in Chile are threatened because of lithium mining.6

Deforestation, habitat destruction and water pollution further exacerbate the ecological toll. The delicate balance of nature is disrupted, which leaves long-lasting damage that takes generations to heal. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions that come with the process of lithium mining, extraction and overall production are worse for the climate than the production of fossil fuel-powered vehicles. A study from The Wall Street Journal in 2019 revealed that 40% of the total climate impact caused by the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining process itself.

Indigenous communities are under threat

The indigenous people of South America are negatively impacted by lithium mining, and the practice has driven hundreds off the land that they once called home. Mining giants in the region originally pledged to consult indigenous communities over lithium mining on their land to make sure it was environmentally sound. However, these corporations have refused to give indigenes a voice in how they are operated. Community leaders have rightfully demanded profits be channeled their way.

Chile’s millennial president, Gabriel Boric, promised to mine differently. He would turn the world’s largest copper producer and second largest lithium miner into a country that focused on environmental and social responsibility.

Here is the problem:

In interviews with Reuters, some community leaders said they would demand more profits be channeled their way, while others said they would resist any new lithium mining at all.

“We’re in the most arid desert and to exchange what we have in water and vegetation for a lithium battery is going to leave us with nothing,” said Francisco Mondaca, a civil engineer and head of the environmental unit of the Atacama Indigenous Council.

“You can’t sacrifice one zone to satisfy another.”

Chile holds the world’s largest lithium reserves, 90% of which are in the Atacama desert.

 

1

https://www.instituteforenergyresearch.org/regulation/the-hypocrisy-of-the-ev-transition/

2

ibid

3

Unicus Research EV deep dive report

4

https://earth.org/environmental-problems-caused-by-mining/

5

Unicus Research EV deep dive report

6

https://www.mining-technology.com/analyst-comment/lithium-mining-negative-environmental-impact/

 

Standard disclaimer follows, but this piece belongs to Unicus, not to Deep Knowledge Investing.

Information contained in this report is believed by Deep Knowledge Investing (“DKI”) to be accurate and/or derived from sources which it believes to be reliable; however, such information is presented without warranty of any kind, whether express or implied and DKI makes no representation as to the completeness, timeliness or accuracy of the information contained therein or with regard to the results to be obtained from its use.  The provision of the information contained in the Services shall not be deemed to obligate DKI to provide updated or similar information in the future except to the extent it may be required to do so. 

 

The information we provide is publicly available; our reports are neither an offer nor a solicitation to buy or sell securities. All expressions of opinion are precisely that and are subject to change. DKI, affiliates of DKI or its principal or others associated with DKI may have, take or sell positions in securities of companies about which we write. 

 

Our opinions are not advice that investment in a company’s securities is suitable for any particular investor. Each investor should consult with and rely on his or its own investigation, due diligence and the recommendations of investment professionals whom the investor has engaged for that purpose. 

 

In no event shall DKI be liable for any costs, liabilities, losses, expenses (including, but not limited to, attorneys’ fees), damages of any kind, including direct, indirect, punitive, incidental, special or consequential damages, or for any trading losses arising from or attributable to the use of this report. 

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