OPINION: What's the true price of green motoring?

A young miner in Kolwezi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fastens bags of cobalt, a vital compo

A young miner in Kolwezi, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fastens bags of cobalt, a vital component in many modern electrical devices - Credit: Getty Images

Motoring journalist Peter Franzen says the electric car debate has a glaring ecological issue

Whether we like it or not, motorists are being driven relentlessly towards electric vehicles. At the end of last year, I wrote a column in this paper saying that despite being a confirmed “petrol head”, green lobby “pressure” had forced me to consider buying an electric car.

Since the article there have been numerous letters in the paper  about the pros and cons of “going” electric or remaining with conventionally-powered vehicles.

But the deeper I delve into battery power beneath the bonnet, the more I am coming to the conclusion that it cannot be a long-term solution. But for now, electric cars may take over sooner than you think.

Many industry observers believe we have already passed the tipping point where sales of electric vehicles (EVs) will very rapidly overwhelm petrol and diesel cars.

Last year was the most successful year in history for electric vehicle uptake as more new battery electric vehicles (BEVs) were registered than over the previous five years combined with 190,727 new BEVs joining Britain’s roads. In addition, there were 114,554 hybrids registered so that 27.5% of the 2021 total market was electric in one form or another.

Certainly, the world's big car makers think the future is electric. Jaguar plans to sell only electric cars from 2025, Volvo from 2030 and Norfolk sportscar company Lotus said it would follow suit, selling only electric models from 2028.

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And it isn't just premium brands. General Motors says it will make only electric vehicles by 2035, Ford says all vehicles sold in Europe will be electric by 2030 and VW says 70% of its sales will be electric by 2030.

This though, comes at a price and I am not just talking about what you pay to buy an electric car. The batteries need cobalt and 70% of all the cobalt comes from the mines of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

News reports and TV programmes abound with stories of the harsh and dangerous working conditions endured by miners in the DRC’s cobalt mines – of child labour and miners being buried alive as tunnels cave in – for a pittance of less than £3 a day.

It has provoked an international outcry in recent years, forcing the western technology and automotive brands that rely on the mineral to look for ways to source “clean” cobalt, free from human rights abuses.

Some companies in the cobalt supply chain have promised to stop sourcing from these mines and instead get the mineral from large-scale industrial mines, which are seen as a safer option both for workers and corporate reputations.

Then we come to the batteries themselves. By 2030, the EU hopes that there will be 30 million electric cars on European roads.

Dr Paul Anderson, who is co-director of the Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials says that while electric vehicles may not emit any carbon dioxide during their working lives, he is concerned about what happens to the batteries when the cars are scrapped.

"In 10 to 15 years when there are large numbers coming to the end of their life, it's going to be very important that we have a recycling industry," he points out.

While most EV components are much the same as those of conventional cars, the big difference is the battery. While traditional lead-acid batteries are widely recycled, the same can't be said for the lithium-ion versions used in electric cars.

EV batteries are larger and heavier than those in regular cars and are made up of several hundred individual lithium-ion cells, all of which need dismantling. They contain hazardous materials and have an inconvenient tendency to explode if disassembled incorrectly.

"Currently, globally, it's very hard to get detailed figures for what percentage of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, but the value everyone quotes is about 5%," says Dr Anderson. "In some parts of the world it's considerably less."

These very real issues about the sourcing of materials for the batteries and the way they can be disposed of and recycled pose a big question about the long-term future of EVs.

So, what might be the solution to this dilemma?

The smart money is on hydrogen, of which the world has an inexhaustible supply. Fuel cells are devices that convert chemical energy (in this case hydrogen) directly into electrical energy, water and heat.

In most hydrogen fuel cell cars (FCEVs), a high-power fuel cell and motor combination provide propulsion in place of an internal combustion engine.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is an area of the automotive industry that is becoming increasingly important as more manufacturers commit to developing this type of power-train.

Unlike electric cars, refuelling is as quick as filling your tank with petrol and all that comes out of the exhaust pipe is water.

Maybe I will stick with my diesel car until 2030 when new fossil fuel vehicle sales will be banned in the UK and hope that by then I can buy a hydrogen-powered car. At least they will come with fewer recycling issues and are not stained by slave labour in the DRC.