Should we continue to adopt Lithium Ion Batteries in the Automotive Industry?

Group 3

With new government legislation being introduced that bans the sale of new internal combustion cars by the year 2030, the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) has never been more rapid. However, uncertainties surrounding lithium-battery production lead to issues with the ethics behind the rapid inclusion of EVs in automotive transport. This article will explore the arguments for and against incorporating EV-technology into our everyday lives.

Arguments Against

If all the world’s petrol cars were replaced with Lithium-based EVs, humanity would be likely to run out of lithium within 5 decades. The adoption of EVs may subscribe to Kant’s theory and an intuitivist’s perspective, because car manufacturers/governments demonstrate a will to reduce the impact of climate change on society, corresponding to the categorical imperative. It is however, a utilitarian drawback. This is because (despite the resulting globally reduced emissions from EVs) society does not benefit in the long term. Humanity becomes dependent on another finite resource that could run out before 2100. Furthermore, in terms of virtue ethics, it can be considered immoral because government individuals/researchers who influence legislation are presently aware of the utilitarian issue of limited Lithium resources, but push ahead anyway with encouraged adoption of electric cars.

With governments pushing hard to reduce the volume of internal combustion engines on the roads, the demand for electric vehicles and their chemical-rich batteries, that require Cobalt, is soaring. To this end the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), supplier of 70% of the world’s Cobalt, is under ever increasing pressure. Child labour is notoriously common within DRC and especially in the Cobalt mines. The action of employing children to perform harsh manual labour is one which is not condoned by the vast majority. As such, by vehicle manufacturers using DRC’s Cobalt supplies, they are in fact choosing to turn a ‘blind eye’ to Kantian Theory, as the action of supporting the use of child labour is immoral and does not agree with any legislative or intuitive moral rules. With DRC employment conditions being common knowledge to these virtuous automotive companies, the action they are taking with regards to this matter is not virtuous. It also goes against many of the companies’ corporate codes of conduct in terms of child labour within their supply chains.

The public is often misled into believing that lithium battery EVs are a zero-carbon alternative to traditional internal combustion vehicles. An example is the Nissan Leaf’s “Zero Emission” badge. However, this is not true. Producing the motors, car bodies, chassis, batteries and other components is carbon intensive. Hence it appears that manufacturers are misleading the public, which goes against the categorical imperative. This is immoral from many angles. Firstly it is unvirtuous to enable a stakeholder (the customer) to believe the carbon reductions (resulting from their purchase) are greater than they actually are. However, the moral benefit may be considered utilitarian. This misleading advertisement could encourage more customers to switch to a lower carbon future. This increases the rate at which society distances itself from higher-carbon transport, potentially decreasing the impact of climate change on the planet. However, if this change is not virtuously achieved, it could reduce public trust in low-carbon technologies, the impact of which could be devastating.

Arguments For

Lithium, like petroleum, is finite. However, unlike petroleum, lithium and the other materials in batteries can be recycled. New recycling methods of used batteries allow us to recycle between 70 to 80% of the materials, vastly reducing the need to mine them out of the earth. Additionally, almost every battery and EV manufacturer is investing heavily in new battery technologies that reduce dependence on finite and rare materials as well investing in battery recycling plants. An attitude of recycling and using recyclable materials subscribes to Kantian ethics as it is something that everyone would agree with. Furthermore, recycling can be considered a virtuous action, therefore from the position of virtue ethics, encouraging a society to recycle would develop this quality in humankind.

The vast majority of lithium production occurs in less economically developed countries which will benefit from the higher demand of lithium as it will increase gross domestic product and also increase the availability of jobs, which will help to lift local communities out of poverty and also speed up their development process, a utilitarian benefit. With this, care ethics would have local leaders encourage their communities to work in lithium mines, assuming adequate safety conditions and reasonable wages. Additionally, with batteries becoming mainstream, public pressure will be further put on companies to ensure workers’ rights are protected and child labour is not used, which is compatable with the categorical imperative and virtue ethics.

In Europe there are significant carbon emission savings when adopting electric vehicles, largely due to reduced carbon emissions being dependent on clean energy, where countries such as Norway and France rely entirely on renewable energy. However, as with everything that is manufactured, EVs have a carbon footprint linked to their production. From a utilitarian perspective, EV’s would still be adopted despite their environmental drawbacks. Humans still benefit from having a powerful energy source to propel vehicles, which are essential to the global economy, and the environment is spared to a smaller degree compared to ICE engines. An extreme biocentrist approach, where society completely avoided the adoption of electric vehicles, would be impractical as it would require advancements in technology to the point where society no longer needed to manufacture and develop anything new. This is not possible in current society today where most vehicles still use non renewable forms of energy and would require us to abandon vehicular transportation altogether. The adoption of battery electric vehicles also subscribes to Kantian ethics, as reduction of tailpipe emissions to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions is something people can universally get behind.

Initial Decision:

This group is for the adoption of Lithium Ion EVs in the automotive industry.

References

Introduction:

Dirty Tesla Thumbnail – https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-willed-the-electric-car-china-and-heres-why-11570786201

Arguments Against:

Paragraph 1 – Lithium Supply – Lithium is finite – but clean technology relies on such non-renewable resources (theconversation.com)

Paragraph 2 – 70% Cobalt – https://www.cfr.org/blog/why-cobalt-mining-drc-needs-urgent-attention

Paragraph 2 – VW Code of Conduct –

https://www.volkswagenag.com/presence/konzern/documents/coc_vw_konzern_en_2020_05_13.pdf

Paragraph 3 – Nissan Leaf Advert – https://www.behance.net/gallery/13051553/Nissan-Leaf-Ad

Arguments For:

Paragraph 1 – 70%-80% recycling – https://newatlas.com/automotive/vw-recycling-plant-batteries-electric/

Paragraph 1 – Heavy investment in recycling technology – https://www.wired.com/story/the-race-to-crack-battery-recycling-before-its-too-late/

Paragraph 3 – Carbon emissions from manufacturing –  https://www.carbonbrief.org/factcheck-how-electric-vehicles-help-to-tackle-climate-change

25 thoughts on “Should we continue to adopt Lithium Ion Batteries in the Automotive Industry?

  1. Very well written and engaging article. I particularly thought the argument against EVs was convicing and brought to light some interesting ideas.

  2. A very interesting read.

    I support the use of lithium ion batteries in the automotive industry as a quick fix which addresses the imminent bans being imposed on the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles. The way lithium and various other battery materials can be recycled is a real selling point and I’m sure such recycling process will undergo rapid development in coming years.

    However, should the main approach not be to reduce the demand for resource intensive vehicles in the first place? From a Civil Engineer’s perspective, efficient public transport systems and advanced public infrastructure such as high speed rail could provide a more long term solution and reduce the demand for personal vehicles in the future.

    1. Totally agree that more emphasis should be on developing public transport infrastructure. It doesn’t help however when these services, especially rail transport is unbelievably expensive. As a result, I feel there would be reluctance from the public if money is spent developing these resources. Where is the value of return to the tax payer?

  3. As a current resident of Earth I am interested in technologies that can successfully tackle the climate crisis and, much like the authors, believe Lithium Ion EVs are one prong on a many pronged spear required to strike into the heart of climate issues.

    Of course, there are environmentally and ethically appropriate alternatives to EVs and I personally hope hydrogen internal combustion vehicles will become commercially viable with a bang.

    Overall, I think this article is FIRST CLASS and I agree with 70+% of it’s contents.

  4. The argument is as balanced as yin and yang. Quick question, I see the drawbacks of DRC, however wouldn’t there be positives as this opens up the job market for the minerals sector as there will be more demand. Overall, the article was as sweet as a spoon of a Nutella.

  5. A very well written, and throughly inspiring article. Where would a philosophical approach land a reader on the question of local versus global pollution? Is okay for a developed western society to reap technological progress whilst others continue to suffer at their expense?

    1. I would point you toward the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, by Ursula K. Le Guin. While it will give you no answer, a very salient question is posed; are we not already reaping the rewards of technical progress, where the bodies of others less fortunate are the price?

  6. Really interesting to see a philosophical approach to what is usually a very science heavy and analytical topic. Great to hear some new opinions on the space and the impact that EVs have that is usually not heard or talked about.

  7. It seems the industry is exploring many options for energy storage, such as solid state batteries or sodium ion batteries, alongside the evolution of lithium ion batteries. For example, Tesla’s new 4680 battery reduces the % content of both lithium and cobalt significantly, when compared to older battery models, while increasing performance metrics. However, Dyson have significantly invested into the nacent solid-state battery sector, seemingly with the intention of entering the EV market.

    Do you think Lithium-ion solutions will remain as prominent as they currently are?

  8. Although Lithium Ion batteries won’t be the revolutionary solution we are looking for regarding alternative energy sources, they will help buy us time to search for revolutionary new energy sources. It definitely makes sense to keep using them for now in the automotive industry until this time comes.

  9. Interesting argument, replacing one unsustainable source with another . Maybe Elon should focus on these issues rather than playing around with monkeys

  10. Opening statement. The problem isn’t clearly stated, and the dilemma isn’t clearly stated either.
    I think the issue is that there are excellent arguments for EV’s – reduced greenhouse gases for one, but in order to get more EVs we need to exploit sources of lithium.

    I like the fact that you had clearly labelled the argument against section and the argument for section – thanks.

    Arguments against: Excellent use of ethical theories, and now I know what the dilemma is too. 😊 Also there is a good dilemma too.

    Arguments for: Excellent use of ethical theories. I like the opening statement that lithium can be recycled. A good strong rebuttal against the opposition that lithium could be exhausted in five decades.

    Advice for Assignment Two: Stakeholders that can be identified will include the child labourers in the DRC.

  11. It’s really got me thinking, and it’s great to see a balance in both sides of the argument. It be interesting to see if with a shift in industry to lithium ion batteries there is also a measurable increase in investments into other similar technologies that has been directly caused by the shift.

  12. The issues of mass EV adoption are not shared often enough. After reading the article, I am led to the same conclusion. EVs are a necessary step towards a better world, but everything must be done to limit the ramifications.

  13. From rscarter1@sheffield.ac.uk:

    ‘This was an interesting article to read.

    Perhaps my main fear brought to light in this article relates to the sourcing of Lithium for use in batteries. In certain countries in Asia where low-cost products are manufactured, particularly electronic components, child labour and unethical working conditions are used in order to bring down the price of these components. It would also seem that there is insufficient pressure from consumers to end these practices, so why should it be any different in the DRC.

    One of the main advantages of BEVs compared to ICE powered vehicles is not related to their carbon footprint. A large proportion of tailpipe emissions are NOx, CO and soot particulates, all of which are harmful to people breathing in the vicinity. For this reason in particular, as well as noise pollution, I think that a switch to EVs should be forced in urban environments.

    Another large downside of BEVs is energy density. Compressed hydrogen can have a greater energy density and far greater specific energy than a Li battery and so I believe that hydrogen fuel cells are an option, research into which should continue in the future. Hydrogen can be manufactured on location at fuel stations by electrolysing water (water and electricity provided by the mains). If this electricity was produced sustainably then this produces a sustainable fuel. This fuel would be better suited to HGVs, and the only tailpipe emissions if used in a fuel cell are water.’

  14. Very interesting article!

    would also think that even though electric vehicles require the use of non renewable power during production that overall their footprint is still less than that of petrol/diesel vehicles as power stations are more efficient in terms of emissions produced than a petrol/diesel car would be

  15. Wow, this is the most interesting article I have read since starting uni. Seriously gripping read 10/10 would recommend. Guardians must read list of the year. Make batteries great again

  16. Interesting article. As engineers, it’s easy to forget the ethical side of the decisions we make, but this sheds some light on the implications of using Li-ion batteries. Food for thought indeed!

  17. Very interesting article. I think it’s important to consider that, whilst EVs are definitely the future of transport, the current battery technology means that their product still has a significant environmental impact. It will take a big improvement in battery technology and cleanliness in the next few years for widespread adoption of EVs to become feasible.

  18. Interesting read, I was just pondering the government legislation and assumed the entire article is an argument for and against in the UK. However, what solutions would you propose to countries where electricity is scarce and not as reliable?

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