This is the solution advocated by governments to combat global warming. The European Commission has just approved its generalization for new vehicles until 2035 at the latest. Beyond the executive and industrial spheres, debates are, however, frequent and agitated.
Does an electric vehicle pollute more or less than a thermal vehicle, taking into account the entire production cycle? How will we produce the electricity needed to ensure the viability of an ever-growing fleet of electrified cars? What about the infrastructure needed for the terminal and the power supply network? What about extracting the components needed for manufacturing? Finally, what about the car’s other impacts on our living environments? All these issues urgently need to be the subject of public debate. But there are still and always great absentees in these discussions: the countries of the South.
Unequal exchange and energy transition
Trade between countries involves indirect transfers of natural resources and negative effects on ecosystems (we call these externalities). When a country imports a good, it indirectly contributes to the environmental impacts necessary for the production of that good in another country. In general, the more complex an asset, the greater these impacts.
Our electric car requires an incredible amount of components and resources, from cobalt to copper, through neodymium, cerium, nickel, etc. However, the manufacture of components, extraction and processing of the vast majority of these materials are not done in our latitudes, but in distant and mainly poorer countries.
Several reasons explain this state of affairs. The strong presence of deposits within the borders of these countries. But also looser and therefore less restrictive environmental regulations for manufacturers in the sector. And finally, the growing opposition of Western public opinion to the reopening of extractive projects within their own countries. This is valid for most industrial (but also agricultural) products produced, including our electric car.
It is, therefore, the so-called unequal ecological exchange, a situation in which “rich countries import products from poor countries at prices that do not take into account the local externalities caused by these exports or the depletion of natural resources”. In other words, rich countries “import available energy from poor countries, while exporting entropy (in the form of waste) there”..
Let’s be concrete: an electric car would require about 90 kg of copper, 7 kg of lithium, 11 kg of manganese, 11 kg of cobalt and 34 kg of nickel.. However, most of these minerals come mainly from the subsoil of the southern countries. More than half of the copper exported is extracted in Chile and Peru; 80% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo; for lithium, in addition to Australia, the world’s largest producer, the next four are Chile, China, Argentina and Zimbabwe. Almost 70% of manganese is exported by five sub-Saharan African countries. As for nickel, the Philippines and Indonesia alone account for more than half of world exports.
In all these countries, the nuisances caused by the mining industry are considerable: destruction of landscapes (exploration is mainly done in open pit mines), depletion of groundwater and drying up of rivers and lagoons (all mines have great needs water), soil and water pollution due to the release of chemicals (arsenic in particular) into surrounding ecosystems, degradation of air quality due to concentration of dust and fine particles, accumulation of thousands of tons of waste. In short, not only environmental but also social consequences (poisoning of populations, impossibility of many peasants to cultivate the land, population displacement, tensions between farmers and miners, etc.).
Add to this the deplorable working conditions of the miners, especially Congolese cobalt, of which a significant part (at least 20%) is still extracted in an artisanal way and, therefore, without regulation, with derisory remuneration, frequent accidents at work. (especially due to the collapse of the galleries), not to mention the fact that 40,000 children would work in these mines that are sprouting like mushrooms due to the increase in world demand.
What qualifies the adjectives “clean” or “green” that constantly accompany the promotion of the electric vehicle, especially since these trends will only worsen with the electrification of the vehicle fleet in the most prosperous regions.
An impossible generalization?
In addition to these impacts, the increase in the number of vehicles and the non-renewable nature of the mentioned resources also raise the issue of depleting the reserves of these raw materials. In fact, many fields around the world are already under strain. Not only because of the increasing extraction: the more a deposit is explored, the less accessible are the remaining reserves, which demand more energy (also increasingly rare), generate higher costs, produce more waste and consume more water. But also because of global warming and capricious rains in many producing regions.
According to some sources, most of the minerals needed for the electrification of the vehicle fleet are about to peak.. Consequently, counting now on a multiplication of the amounts mined is likely to crash against the wall of our planet’s physical realities (continued growth in world needs would require extracting more metals by 2050 than… !)
Thus, trying to achieve the stated objective will necessarily involve the discovery and opening of new deposits, as it is evident that those already explored will not be enough to satisfy a new boom in demand. Prospecting is already being done, mainly at the bottom of the oceans. But one thing is certain, the legitimacy of the electric car can only last if this operation takes place outside the borders of the main consuming countries. The populations of these countries are indeed very reluctant (and rightly so) to reopen mines in regions that have not known them for decades. This is evidenced by the popular mobilization that delayed a lithium extraction project in Serbia in December 2021. So it’s a safe bet that if there are new projects, it will again be in countries with less prosperous economies.
All these elements make it impossible to generalize the electric car around the world and reserve in fact to a minority part of humanity, the richest, of course. The other party will have to content itself with supplying it with raw materials and driving its old thermal vehicles. Because it is clear that, in the event of the gradual replacement of the European car fleet, hundreds of millions of vehicles will become obsolete in the territory. Vehicles that will end up in a second-hand market, mainly destined for the poorest countries (which is already the case today), fueling a transnational trade from which they can continue to emit fine particulates and greenhouse gases elsewhere while our cities bathe in air.
And then ?
Once those limits are established, how about this solution? A first step is to get out of a binary debate about the electric car. The question, as for many technologies elsewhere, must be asked beyond a “for or against” debate. It is essential to recontextualize this “solution” and anchor it in spatial, physical, ecological and economic realities. This implies rethinking the entire cycle and its impacts not only here, but also (and above all) elsewhere. Not only on climate, but also on other equally important environmental variables. Only when that path is established can we have a serene debate on the matter.
And it is clear that this recontextualization totally discredits the generalization of the electric car (remember that there are currently more than a billion cars on the entire planet!) transport services, relocation of economic activity outside large urban centers, ban on advertising to new vehicles, measures to encourage people to keep their old car, even if it emits more COtwo (remember that 80% of a vehicle’s pollution comes from its production), encouraging the purchase of smaller and lighter cars, telecommuting, etc.
Only when these measures are in place can the electric car be part of the solution. inside the case
the promised electrification will essentially have two effects: the opening of new markets for an automobile industry always in search of new profits. And the search for a neocolonialism in which the countries (and especially the populations) of the South will continue to be the big losers.
In the blog
“Oil, soon the end? (Renaud Duterme)
“Is the world industry about to dry up? (Renaud Duterme)
“Cities without cars? (Manouk Borzakian)
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 The concept of the South is used here to designate the poorest countries on the planet. No terminology is perfect, but this one seems more favorable to us for essentially two reasons. On the one hand, due to the lack of pejorative consideration against “underdeveloped” or “developing” countries. On the other hand, underline the fact that most “poor” countries are located in tropical latitudes (for geo-historical and not just climatic reasons). Of course, this name also has its limits. First, because several countries escape this geographic division (Australia and New Zealand, for example). Second, because no country is homogeneous and suffers from relations of exploitation and inequalities in the distribution of wealth.
 Catherine Larrere (right), environmental inequalitiesPUF, 2017, p.
 Figures provided by Aurore Stephant, mining geologist engineer.
 https://atlas.cid.harvard.edu/. Unless otherwise noted, the numbers below come from the same source.
 William Pitron, The War of the Rare MetalsThe Links That Release, 2018, appendix 14
 Ibid., p. 214.