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.
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.
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.
This group is for the adoption of Lithium Ion EVs in the automotive industry.
Dirty Tesla Thumbnail – https://www.wsj.com/articles/who-willed-the-electric-car-china-and-heres-why-11570786201
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 –
Paragraph 3 – Nissan Leaf Advert – https://www.behance.net/gallery/13051553/Nissan-Leaf-Ad
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