Electric Vehicles (EVs) are widely regarded as the future of transportation, an image avidly curated by Tesla. Central to the argument is the idea that EVs drastically reduce CO2-emissions compared to conventional combustion engines, thanks to the use of innovative batteries. Once again, Tesla is leading the charge on that front. The company is currently in talks with BHP, the world’s largest miner, to increase the supply of nickel – a key metal in e-battery production that Tesla CEO Elon Musk is envisioning as the primary metal to be used in his batteries.
Indeed, while most e-car producers are looking at lithium, cobalt, and graphite for their batteries, Tesla is going in a different direction by focusing on nickel as the carmaker is beginning to move power cell production in-house. Nickel, still primarily used in steelmaking, is turning into a two-trick pony thanks to the EV industry, because its high energy density enables to pack e-batteries with more power while reducing reliance on other materials, notably copper and cobalt.
Tesla’s move comes at a time when the global car market is beginning to rebound from the coronavirus-induced slump. Tesla is leading the recovery with a 50%-increase in car deliveries compared to the previous quarter. However, they also hint at the growing pressure on nickel supply chains, given that carmakers like BMW and Audi are also prioritizing EV production under a governmental incentive programme.
The holy grail of transportation?
Although marketed as “zero emission” vehicles – especially by Tesla – EV’s are currently far from the green solution they’re touted as. After the manufacturing process and batteries are taken into account their carbon footprint is in reality little better than that of gas guzzlers. The scale tips further if the extraction of the necessary raw materials is considered, a point succinctly made by French journalist Guillaume Pitron, who highlights the paradox that an EV requires three to four times more energy – and thus produces more carbon – than a conventional vehicle before it has even driven the first kilometre.
Yet mining for the metals required in e-battery production has far-reaching environmental impacts beyond carbon emissions, ranging from pollution to destruction. Nickel is no exception, given that easily minable deposits are already being fully exploited. This means that increasing output of nickel is a highly problematic endeavour – even more so since Musk’s call on mining companies to engage in “environmentally-friendly nickel mining at high volume” has considerably upped the ante for sustainable supply.
Rethinking metal mining
However, Musk’s call was certainly heard in boardrooms of companies across the world – and it might just so be that it is providing the impetus for the mining industry to clean up its act, move towards greater sustainability and consideration for human rights. Cobalt, too, is a conflict mineral after all, and electric car makers are beginning to privilege ethically sourced cobalt in their manufacturing process, albeit slowly.
That a slow process of rethinking is taking place in the nickel sector – mirroring the one under way in the cobalt mining industry – can be seen by Nornickel’s recent decision to sign a cooperation agreement with three organizations representing over 90% of the indigenous peoples inhabiting Russia’s North and Far East. Nornickel, the largest nickel miner in the world, closed the agreement following surveys carried out in the region involving interviews and various polls conducted among indigenous communities, which served to identify priority areas for cultural support and employment programmes worth $25.42 million.
Furthermore, Norilsk Nickel’s move was described by one of the signatories as “an example for other companies” when it comes to finding a balance between mining and social responsibility. The agreement is in line with the company’s commitment to reduce the environmental impact of its mining operations, which the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) had previously urged the miner to do. Consequently, Nornickel has sought to slash sulphur emissions by shuttering old smelters.
Baby steps forward
And yet there’s little doubt that making nickel mining “environmentally sensitive” remains a formidable challenge not every producer might be willing to invest in. Take Indonesia, the country with the biggest deposits of high-grade nickel, where mining firms have come under fire for beginning construction on waste plants designed to pump affluent into the ocean, despite never receiving clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Even so, the first steps on the path to cleaner supply chains have been made, albeit small ones. Yet a look into the future makes it clear that investing into cleaner extraction and greater socio-environmental responsibility could pay off big for those who do. As global economic recovery is picking up pace, the nickel market is expected to massively expand again, but this time, EV’s overall lifecycle emissions could be reduced. This would end one of the hardest-hitting criticisms of electric vehicles and help to make a truly “green” mode of transportation a little closer to becoming reality.
Image: Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.
Free to use under Creative Commons License with attribution to “Daniel Oberhaus (2018)”, via Flickr.