Are Electric cars really as environment friendly as it says it is?
Some extremely dirty businesses and regimes are driven by clean vehicles, the most important lesson to take away from Henry Sanderson’s outstanding new book Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green. He names other winners, such as child labor-using copper miners, trash-dumping nickel miners, dishonest businesspeople who buy off repressive African governments, and several Chinese billionaires. It’s very different from the idealistic picture Tesla customers were promised.
Volt Rush does a good job of correcting the utopian language that paints electric cars as free environmental saviors. They do help to lessen the number of greenhouse gases that are released into the sky and heat the world. But switching to Teslas and their competitors—which are supported by tens of billions of dollars in international government subsidies—also has a significant negative impact on the environment and global politics.
A raucous tale of greed, politics, and technology has been written by the author even though he is a geek and believes that the battery in electric cars is the most exciting part. The story is also home to an incredible variety of brigands, despicable, and visionaries.
Beijing used its plan to stop Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles using foreign batteries for several years, making foreign battery producers uncompetitive in China. Due to its protected market, CATL was able to outperform South Korean rivals that are still formidable competitors despite having once led the world in technological development.
However, the success of the company is not entirely attributable to government assistance. Even after Xi Jinping started the transition to state-owned companies in 2013, Beijing and local governments in China continued to encourage foreign investment, entrepreneurship, and relentless cost-cutting.
In the case of CATL, the creator Robin Zeng left his position at a state-owned corporation in the Fujian province and began working on battery development, first in tandem with a former IBM scientist from Taiwan. Zeng eventually agreed with BMW’s Chinese joint venture to develop batteries for electric vehicles. Because of BMW’s high requirements, CATL was able to improve to the point that it was the preferred supplier for other manufacturers.
To compete with Huawei Technologies Co. in the telecom industry, CATL is now promoting cutting-edge technology globally. In several clean industries, China is therefore now innovating rather than copying others.
One underappreciated factor in China’s success with renewable energy is the fierce local competition that lowers prices internationally. Chinese suppliers’ incredibly low costs for solar materials and components, for instance, drove American, Japanese, and European rivals out of business while also making solar energy more accessible. Therefore, the decision for policymakers is whether to block Chinese imports to support domestic enterprises or open the market wider to support domestic consumers. Gregory Nemet, a solar expert at the University of Wisconsin, referred to China’s reduction in solar costs as a “gift to the world.”
Because they lacked the essential raw materials at home, Chinese enterprises had to extend into overseas mining with government support to take the lead in the development of electric vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries, the go-to power source for electric vehicles, need a lot of the elements lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt. Beijing has to look outside because no Chinese mine produces any of these minerals in amounts that come close to being sufficient. A “raw material surge” resulted as a result, according to Sanderson.
A messy situation exists. For electric cars, three times as much copper is required as for gasoline-powered vehicles. For electric buses, the margin might be as much as 16 times larger. The energy-intensive mining operation, which is typically fueled by coal-fired plants, greatly hinders the emissions savings from converting to electric cars over conventional ones.
China’s rise to the top of the market for the minerals it lacks is explained in Volt Rush. Even while China is notorious for its unethical international business practices, its tactics hardly stand out in that regard—especially in the cutthroat global mining sector. Consider the ultra-Orthodox Israeli businessman Dan Gertler, who used his connections with President Joseph Kabila of the Congo to obtain the rights to Congolese cobalt and copper for a fraction of their worthwhile working as an agent for commodities tycoon Glencore.