Electric vehicles promise environmental wins. But could there be environmental costs?

This is the second in a three-part series, The Real Cost of Electric Vehicles, diving into the future of electric vehicles and how electrification will impact Windsor-Essex. On the first day, we looked at affordability. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the impact on jobs in Windsor-Essex.

As environmentalist Michael Schneider drives around in his fully electric Chevy Bolt, he rejoices at the peacefulness of the ride. 

“There’s no noise whatsoever, and that is the beauty of it,” he said.

“I think it gives you a better sense of your environment because you’re not having a distraction from your engine obviously. And you can just enjoy the ride.”

Schneider, who has worked in the solar panel industry for years, also serves as the chapter lead for the Electric Vehicle Society of Windsor-Essex. He bought his first EV 10 years ago. 

“It was an environmental decision at that time because I had the chance to buy a vehicle that’s less carbon intensive,” Schneider explained.

That’s the draw for many consumers looking to be environmentally minded. 

Teresa Kramarz is a professor at the School of Environment at the University of Toronto with a focus on the governance of natural resources.
Teresa Kramarz teaches at the School of Environment at the University of Toronto, with a focus on the governance of natural resources. (CBC)

The ferocious push toward the electrification of vehicles in Windsor and Canada promises to be a key factor in the country’s commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 — but some environmentalists are concerned that speed could come with consequences.

“We might do a lot of damage in the transition if we’re not careful,” said Teresa Kramarz, an assistant professor at the School of Environment at the University of Toronto with a focus on the governance of natural resources.

“I want to be really clear that we have to de-carbonize…. My concern is to ensure that as we de-carbonize, we pay attention to how we’re doing it rather than just only look at the carbon unit as the sole unit of analysis of our questions of governance.”

‘Doing the right thing’

By 2035, the Canadian government wants every new passenger vehicle sold in the country to be electric. Many of those vehicles, and the batteries put in them, will be built in Windsor, both at the assembly plant and at the new Stellantis-LG electric vehicle battery plant expected to be operational by 2024.

“When you’re buying electric vehicles, when you’re driving electric vehicles … you’re doing the right thing,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to Windsor’s Assembly Plant in mid-January. 

An Alpha lithium employee works next to a brine pool at the Tolillar salt flat, in Salta, Argentina, on Aug. 13, 2021. To make electric vehicle batteries, you need minerals like lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt, which one expert says could come with ecological implications. (Agustin Marcarian/Reuters)

However, mining expert Kramarz is worried environmental concerns might take a back seat in a conversation that is “so politically attractive.”

She worries that in order to meet some of the targets set out by the government, we might end up sourcing our required critical minerals from the global south. 

In order to make batteries, you need minerals like lithium, graphite, nickel and cobalt — all of which have social and ecological implications, Kramarz said. 

Lithium in particular, she pointed out, leads to a significant amount of water extraction, and can lead to contamination of water supply, which can also impact ecosystems and the species that depend on them. 

Canada doesn’t currently produce lithium, though it has about 2.5 per cent of the world’s known lithium deposits. That’s a tiny share compared to countries like Bolivia, Australia, Chile and Argentina, not to mention that China controls most of the world’s processing capability. 

She also pointed out examples of cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo — where she says 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt comes from — something the United Nations has documented as having profound negative consequences, like pollution and destruction of critical ecosystems, as well as a number of negative social impacts. 

People fetch water outside a copper and cobalt mine run in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2015. China dominates the mining sector in this country and its vast reserves of minerals. (Aaron Ross/Reuters)

“The urgency of this transition is also … in my view, threatening the kinds of careful consultations that need to take place, negotiations with communities that are going to be in zones of extraction and that are affected,” Kramarz said.

Mining to supply the demand

A lithium mine run by Sayona Quebec in La Corne is expected to start production sometime this year, and in the meantime, Premier Doug Ford has his eyes set on mining in northern Ontario to address the demand. Kramarz explained that could take many years to be operational.

“In the north, we have 34 of the most critical minerals the whole world wants,” Ford proclaimed at a conference last week. 

The Ring of Fire mineral deposit is more than 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. (CBC News)

The premier has pledged a $1-billion access road to the Ring of Fire area — a huge mineral reserve — that’s about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

However, northern communities like Neskantaga First Nation are pushing back for fears that mining in that region, in order to supply these projects with resources, would completely change the way of life for the community. The province has said First Nations are being consulted. 

‘You have to look at the whole picture’

“We need consultation with First Nations. It’s in their own backyard,” said Theresa Sims, local elder of the upper Mohawk, Turtle Clan of Six Nations of the Grand River. She is also the culture and language specialist for Ska:na Family Learning Centre in Windsor.

“I know this company, this factory is going to be a lot of jobs for people [in Windsor]. But we have to make sure it’s sustainable,” she said. 

Theresa Sims says it's important to consider the big picture when discussing electric vehicles, not just the benefits of the end product.
Indigenous elder Theresa Sims says it’s important to consider the big picture when discussing electric vehicles, not just the benefits of the end product. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

She stressed that even though electric vehicles help reduce carbon emissions, considerations should be made to ensure that the overall impact is a positive one for seven generations into the future.

Mark Stewart, chief operating officer for Stellantis North America, said the company is committed to making the transition responsibly, including when it comes to how materials are being mined. 

When CBC asked where Stellantis sources its minerals, Stewart said the company is sourced all over the world, but that it’s done in “free trade zones for across North America.”

“We’ve got dedicated purchasing teams working on that from the supply base we already have today, and working to develop new supply base, including the new mines coming on board, and the new infrastructure that will be put in place here in Canada makes great sense for us, makes great sense for Canada,” he said. 

WATCH | Teresa Kramarz explains why transitioning away from fossil fuels isn’t simply about replacing them with non-fossil fuels:

Teresa Kramarz on important environmental considerations

Environmental scholar Teresa Kramarz points out some of the factors that should be considered when looking at what makes for a sustainable transition away from fossil fuels.

Changing our relationship with the environment

Schneider acknowledged there are concerns around the manufacturing process of electric vehicles. 

“The mining has an impact, but there’s also developments that are happening in the battery field, so hopefully in the next few years they will work on being able to manufacture batteries that have less of an impact on the environment by the manufacturing process, right?” he said. 

“I’m sure they will be working on that as well because nobody wants to harm the environment in any which way, especially if you’re doing a net-zero operation, right?”

If it opens on time next March, the La Corne, Que., mine will be one of the only functional lithium mines in North America. (Sayona Québec )

Kramarz also questions how recycling of EV batteries will be handled down the road, which she describes as “one of the least regulated aspects of environmental impacts” when it comes to critical battery minerals.

She also stressed that replacing every single internal combustion vehicle with an electric vehicle still doesn’t solve the problem. 

“I say a lot of times they say, ‘Do we really need a Tesla in every driveway? Like, is this really the solution to the crisis that we’ve created?’ And I don’t think so.”

Kramarz said it would be useful to consider approaches like un-sprawling urban growth and making cities more walkable.

“We have to have fundamentally a different relationship with our environment.”

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