Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green
‘We have to scale battery production to crazy levels that people can’t even fathom today.’
Elon Musk, Tesla CEO1
In mid-2020 as the world settled into lockdown, we decided to get an electric car. Our son was seven months old and I had begun to think seriously about his future and whether the world would act quickly enough to mitigate the threats of climate change. Shares in Tesla were soaring, and the carmaker was on the cusp of becoming the most valuable in the world, despite the fact it made a fraction of the eleven million cars a year produced by Toyota. Tesla’s Model 3 had been the UK’s bestselling car that April and our friends had started to take the plunge. I knew that our son’s future would depend on decisions we made now, not later. Even as the pandemic had halted global economic activity the news was still grim: a Siberian heatwave had pushed up global temperatures to their second-highest on record. The well-known impacts of climate change stemming from our consumption of fossil fuels had not taken a break. So, I placed our old two-door petrol car for sale and started to look for electrics to rent. Google informed me that one popular search topic was: ‘Will petrol cars be worthless?’
Electric cars were the ethical consumer choice. It was a seductive idea: we could change the world by slightly altering our current lifestyle with a marginal amount of sacrifice. Buying a green investment fund instead of an index tracker; an electric car instead of a petrol one. The BBC informed me that the way we choose ‘to travel to the office, or even to pop to the shops, is also one of the biggest day-to-day climate decisions we face’.2 The car leasing company I used promised a world where cars ‘go hand in hand with the environment’. I imagined myself charging my car in the future and wondered how we would start to perceive petrol cars. Would driving one start to seem like an act of wanton vandalism to the planet, a thoroughly anti-social provocation?
For seven years I had lived in Beijing at the tail-end of China’s thirty-year car boom. I would still wake up with memories of what it had felt like to live there: the dry grating taste at the back of my throat, the hot breath behind my mask (long before Covid) and the tightness in the centre of my chest. I remember watching the red taillights on giant ring roads flowing into a dusk the colour of dirty sink water and feeling unable to escape the city of over twenty million. On some days Beijing felt like a postcard from the end of the planet. China’s car demand seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut – an urge to consume that would eat up whole cities, and then require new cities to be built for the cars.
The growth of China’s car market in my lifetime is alarming. To make a meaningful difference to climate change we will need to scale up the electric car fleet rapidly. The current stock of electric cars globally is around ten million, less than twice the number of cars in Beijing and only one percent of the global total. There are over one billion cars globally on the roads. We will also need to replace buses and trucks with electric versions, as well as ships, ferries and even planes. All this will require batteries on a scale unimaginable a few years ago. Tesla’s South African-born founder Elon Musk had built a vast battery ‘Gigafactory’ in the desert of Nevada to supply his electric cars as well as the batteries to store renewable sources of energy. But he was not alone: across China a new factory was being built every week in 2020.
Through my work as a Financial Times journalist, I had covered the raw materials electric cars needed: the lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper, as well as aluminium and steel. The harder I looked at the supply chain and who was responsible for these metals, the more I understood the shift in economic power that this transition would bring. While Musk and Tesla took all the media attention and limelight, there was a shadow world of billionaires who were also set to get rich. A gold rush had begun.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo I saw private jets landing at the small green and white airport in the mining town of Kolwezi while all around children and families mined for cobalt by hand; in Chile I stood in the searing heat of the Atacama Desert overlooking giant pools the size of Manhattan where lithium was extracted; and in China I visited battery factories and lithium plants running twenty-four hours a day using coal-fired power next to fields where buffalo roamed freely. All this was part of the electric car supply chain. A host of companies were even planning to mine the deep sea for these minerals, opening up one of the last unexplored wildernesses to extraction.
Every day, we rely on metals and minerals to power our iPhones and transmit our electricity. Digital technologies give us a sense that we live in an ethereal economy untethered to the material world. In fact, we are mining more minerals than at any time in our history, a dependence that is only set to increase.* Despite talk of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and an imminent takeover by robots, our societies have in many ways not moved on from the practices of the past, when the need for oil drove Europeans to carve up the Middle East.
The consequences of the transition will not just be economic – they will also be environmental. Extracting and processing these minerals requires large amounts of energy and pollutes local ecosystems. This fact is often hidden in debates about a transition to renewable energy and electric cars. Every product we use has contributed to global emissions, both through extraction of raw materials and manufacturing. Mining is estimated to contribute around ten percent to global carbon emissions. It is an unavoidable industry: to make steel we need coal, and to make batteries we need lithium, the world’s lightest metal with the highest electrochemical potential. The electric vehicle (EV) revolution is green at its core but there are many choices to be made in the way it is executed that will affect both the environment and global power dynamics.
Green energy evangelists tend to assume that a fossil-free future will be without conflicts. Bill McKibben, a well-known activist, wrote that ‘if the world ran on sun, it wouldn’t fight over oil’.3 This idea was repeated by Tony Fadell, the creator of the iPod, who told Wired magazine: ‘If we have energy storage technologies that are very cheap and very efficient, then we’re going to see wars stop, because no one is going to be fighting over oil reserves anymore.’4 Yet the demand for raw materials to build our clean energy infrastructure is as geopolitical as the age of oil. Countries that are able to become a part of these new clean energy supply chains will benefit, while those who cannot will suffer.
The transition to clean energy has already deepened geopolitical tensions between the West and China. Over the past decade, China has obtained a dominant position in both clean energy technologies such as batteries and solar cells and the raw material supply chains that underpin them. While many of these minerals are not rare in the earth’s crust, they are mostly processed in China into usable forms. It’s likely the lithium and cobalt in my car were mined in Australia and the Congo yet processed in China and turned into a battery by a Chinese company.* The electricity was probably generated from solar panels produced by a Chinese company from polysilicon made using coal-fired power in Xinjiang province. And the copper was almost certainly refined in one of China’s hundreds of copper smelters. Without China, we cannot move towards a green, battery-powered future. As we move towards greater energy independence, these supply chains remain our greatest vulnerability.
This book tells the story of these supply chains and the characters behind them. The story involves some of the world’s most secretive natural resource companies; private Chinese companies buying up mines in Chile, Australia and Indonesia; and the largest car companies in the world such as Tesla and Volkswagen. My hope is that the book will equip readers to ask the right questions about our transition away from fossil fuels. The resources we need are buried in the earth’s crust; so what environmental and social cost are we willing to bear to extract them? Without scrutiny, abuses will remain hidden behind a veil of corporate ‘greenwash’ from companies further down the supply chain. We are at the beginning of the electric car revolution, which means we have a unique opportunity as consumers to push companies to do the right thing and manage the downsides involved. We shouldn’t be hostile to green technologies but we shouldn’t be naive either. The oil age has left a long scar on the twentieth century. We should make sure that the industries of our green future do much better.
1 The Battery Age
2 Dashed Hopes: The Troubled History of the EV
3 The Breakthrough: The Lithium-Ion Revolution
4 China’s Battery King
5 The Chinese Lithium Rush
6 Chile’s Buried Treasure
7 The Cobalt Problem
8 The Rise of a Cobalt Giant
9 Blood Cobalt
10 Dirty Nickel
11 The Green Copper Tycoon
12 The Final Frontier: Mining the Deep Sea
13 Reduce, Re-use, Recycle: A Closed Loop
14 The World’s Greenest Battery
15 Cornwall’s Mining Revival
|September 21, 2022
How to Read and Open File Type for PC ?