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Clean Energy Is Not as Clean as Its Advocates Claim – But It Can Be

When Julius Caesar divorced Pompeia, he said that Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion. Little did he know that virtue signaling was set to become a modern plague. Some people think it is more important to seem concerned with the world’s fate than actually care about it. A Deutsche Welle documentary showed that might be precisely the case with clean energy.
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Unfortunately, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine made that incredibly evident. We had politicians saying that the invasion was a pretext for Vladimir Putin to drive attention away from climate change. They also said he could only put the world on the brink of widespread war because Europe needs Russian fossil fuels. Some others said that electric cars would have prevented the whole war because they would cut that dependency. That shows virtue signaling is not the only problem we face: stupidity also reached alarming levels among people that should have more than two functioning neurons.

That does not mean that electric cars are not necessary. For anyone willing to have the freedom to drive anywhere they want, they are essential. Without EVs, driving enthusiasts will be empty-handed when combustion engines kick the bucket. As I wrote a while ago, some automakers are still trying to keep them alive by burning hydrogen, which is a terrible idea. Burning does not seem to be an option anymore, either for cars or for power generation.

Deutsche Welle shows that in its documentary. Aliro Bolados, the president of the regional medical council in Antofagasta, Chile, released a study alerting about the high concentration of heavy metals in the air of that city due to copper mining in Chiquicamata, 235 kilometers (146 miles) away. According to Bolados, this mining activity makes lung cancer cases be the leading cause of death in the north of Chile.

Copper is one of the primary raw materials needed for electric cars and batteries. To extract it from the Chuquicamata mine, a coal power plant had to be built in Tocopilla, 147 km (91 mi) away. The pollution it emits is also blamed for cancer. Fernando Andrés Lillo Jerez, a 17-year-old city resident, died from lung cancer ten years ago. The documentary presents his case as an example of the dangers mining activity associated with burning coal can bring.

The documentary escapes the temptation of highlighting cobalt extraction in Congo as the main human rights emergency involving batteries. We already know how damaging that is. Most battery manufacturers either say they need little cobalt or make sure to warn that the metal they buy comes from certified companies that prevent child labor and other human rights violations. Instead, it talks about graphite extraction in China, for example.

Deutsche Welle shows how Chinese workers in ramshackle factories have to deal with graphite powder in the north of the country. By breathing that air, they could develop silicosis. This type of pulmonary fibrosis emerges from inhaling that powder, eventually leading the sick person not to be able to breathe anymore. In other words, it slowly kills them by suffocation.

The miners are far from being the only people affected by graphite extraction. Residues from its mining are disposed of on open-air deposits, which harm farmers with the bad luck to live nearby. One of them said that avoiding handcuffs and prison time demanded him to remain quiet. Deutsche Welle was wise enough not to name this man nor where he lives. If you think it through, even showing his face was very risky.

Rare earth elements also cause an environmental disaster in Baotou, inner Mongolia. Illegal disposal of wastewater filled with toxins, radioactive material such as thorium, and heavy metals is now polluting groundwater there. When this wastewater evaporates, it leaves behind dust that winds carry to cities and the population’s lungs. Around Baotou, former villagers who lost their lands to pollution are classified by Deutsche Welle as the first green tech refugees.

China and its police state could not contain that because the state owns the companies that make this mess. They pretend to comply with environmental regulations when inspections occur, getting back to illegally disposing of wastewater and other pollutants as soon as they end. That allows them to offer lower prices and help make motors and batteries cheaper.

Whenever we celebrate that cells are getting more affordable, the explanation may lie here. On top of that, not even these battered factories and precarious working conditions are making prices decrease, as I told our readers in a recent article. Supply is not meeting demand, and prices will go up with the electric car frenzy unless we have more mines, more ramshackle plants for raw materials, and all the consequences mentioned here.

Make no mistake: these materials are not used only in electric vehicles and their batteries. They are also on wind turbines, solar cells, and other components that produce the so-called green energy. To make matters worse, some of these clean energy solutions only generate electricity when certain conditions are met: sunny days for solar panels, winds for wind turbines, and so forth.

Energy is more needed at night – when people are back home. That makes batteries or other systems to store energy an essential part of the equation. Just installing wind turbines around without an economically feasible way to save that energy for when it is really needed is a waste of resources.

With all that on the table, it is clear that only driving an electric car will not save the planet. That is especially true if this EV follows the same business model ICE vehicles have adopted for more than one hundred years. For our choices to really make a difference, we need a shift not only in what makes cars move: the way we do business also has to change.

Riversimple has been trying to present a new solution to deal with cars and even raw materials that points to a more sustainable direction. It still works with the idea of profit and rewarding better solutions more than those that do not do that well. To the dismay of people who think capitalism is evil, it is still the best economic system available. What needs to be fixed are the terrible side effects it produces.

Ironically, Riversimple ends the idea of owning a car or even the lithium and other raw materials in a battery. It turns everything into service and eliminates programmed obsolescence for good. Even if that does not work as planned, at least it tackles the central issue our way of life has created: it saves resources. There are not enough of them for humanity to keep living as it does.

World Overshoot Day shows mankind takes everything for granted: oil, copper, graphite, cobalt, lithium, water, clean air, health. We are running out of all these things earlier each year while thinking we have infinite credit. Eventually, the bill will come. It has come to thousands of people already. Driving an electric car does not exempt you from following a model that no longer works. It may just save you from reckoning that the problem is still there.

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