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Why electric cars are ruffling feathers in conservation world

EV

An electric vehicle charging. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • There were 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads by the end of 2020, according to the Global EV Outlook 2021 by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
  • Some studies have projected that the demand for cobalt, lithium and nickel will exceed current mining reserves by 2050.
  • A group of more than 300 researchers, including ocean experts from 44 countries, last month signed a petition rejecting plans to open up international waters to mining companies.

The internal combustion engine has been the centerpiece of the automotive industry for decades, but experts now say that its days are swiftly waning as electric vehicles (EVs) continue to gain a foothold.

There were 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads by the end of 2020, according to the Global EV Outlook 2021 by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

IEA said globally, electric car registrations increased by 41 percent last year, despite the 16 percent drop in overall car sales due to Covid-19.

Studies show that by 2050, every second car in the streets will be electric, helping reduce global CO2 emissions by up to 1.5 gigatonnes per year, which is almost double the emissions by Africa.

Kenya is not being left behind in this shift, with Kenya Power planning to roll out electric vehicle charging points countrywide, and power producer KenGen also announcing plans to invest in electric car charging system.

The Ministry of Energy is also mulling making it mandatory for new buildings, including those owned by the State, to incorporate charging stations.

The government has provided fiscal incentives for EVs with a lower import duty of 20 percent compared with 30 percent for petrol/diesel vehicles.

This will help in the push to have electric vehicle imports account for five percent of the total number of vehicles registered in the country by 2025. This is informed by a need to reduce polluting fumes which as per World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics are responsible for about 5,000 respiratory related deaths per year in the country.

The rapid rise of the electric car market has mainly been aided by a big leap forward in battery technology, which means that units are now able to keep enough charge to cover hundreds of kilometres.

Most electric cars now cover between 250 and 450 kilometres on a full charge—enough to drive from Nairobi to Western Kenya or the Coast comfortably.

However, it is this leap forward in battery technology that has conservationists worried, with the bone of contention being the sourcing of materials needed to make the batteries from the seabed.

Most automakers are pinning strategies on lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries with cathodes made from oxides of nickel, manganese and cobalt — which already supply about half of EVs.

Lithium faces the steepest increase in demand, a six-fold increase from the battery sector by 2030. Experts also expect the cobalt market to fall into deficit from 2027, with supply from mines and recycling only meeting half of demand by the mid-2030s.

IEA projections indicate that around 90 percent of battery demand will come from EVs over the next 20 years.

“The rapid deployment of electric mobility and the automotive industry adoption of batteries to power EVs are drastically changing the battery industry. The scale of lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery material sourcing and manufacturing is set to grow substantially,” says IEA report.

Some studies have projected that the demand for cobalt, lithium and nickel will exceed current mining reserves by 2050.

The manufacturers have therefore turned to the seabed as the next frontier for mining these minerals, which in the eyes of conservationists will pose a huge threat to the fragile marine ecosystem.

Battery sector investors on the other hand believe the move is vital in addressing the imminent shortage of minerals for making EVs batteries in future. The floor of the sea is believed to contain large deposits of metals like copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, lead and lithium.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is expected to vote, later this year or early 2022, on the draft standards and guidelines to pave the way for mining in more than 1.5 million square kilometres of international seabed in Pacific and Indian oceans.

Kenya is one of the 167-member states of ISA — a body formed by the United Nations to regulate activities in seabed areas beyond national jurisdictions.

The ISA standards and guidelines will be used to control activities in areas beyond national jurisdiction. But member States that need to mine areas under their jurisdictions will need to come up with individual regulations that are within ISA guidelines.

ISA has issued about 30 contracts for the exploration of deep-sea mineral deposits, but mining will only be allowed four years after the approval of standards and guidelines. If ISA approves the guidelines next year, mining activities will commence in 2025.

But conservationists are not amused. They want ISA to put on hold the vote on the draft standards and regulations, arguing that the mining would have a destructive impact on deep-sea ecosystems and biodiversity, which could have a knock-on effect on fisheries, livelihoods and food security and compromise ocean carbon, metal and nutrient cycles.

A group of more than 300 researchers, including ocean experts from 44 countries, last month signed a petition rejecting plans to open up international waters to mining companies.

They argue that sufficient and robust scientific information needs to be collected before governments can decide whether to open up an entirely new frontier of the ocean to large-scale industrial resource exploitation.

“Deep-sea mining will result in the immediate loss of biodiversity and is even likely to lead to the extinction of species and destruction of sensitive habitats through various aspects of the mining process,” the experts say.

“Waste ejected overboard by mining mother ships could create large plumes, leading to toxic and suffocating pollution that will spread widely beyond the machine footprint. Noise, vibrations and light pollution from the mining equipment could stress whales and other marine life.”

A report released earlier this year by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says seabed mining could result to losses of up to Sh240 trillion globally.

WWF says disturbances caused by sea floor mining can easily cross ecological and jurisdictional boundaries, leading to unexpected and unquantifiable consequences, even on land.

Loss of primary production, for example, could affect global fisheries, threatening the main protein source of around one billion people and the livelihoods of around 200 million people, many in poor coastal communities.

“While deep seabed mining as an industry has been valued at $2-$20 billion (Sh216 billion – Sh2 trillion) it threatens to disrupt a much wider ocean economy, valued at $1.5-$2.4 trillion (Sh150 –240 trillion) annually. Because marine ecosystems have no obvious physical boundaries, deep seabed mining cannot occur in isolation and its impacts would not be limited to the ocean floor,” says the WWF.

Countries are also likely to become more vigilant of their territorial waters, with the potential for conflict if valuable minerals are at stake.

From a conservation point of view however, the riches on offer from seabed mining will pose a dilemma for poorer countries which can earn billions of dollar from exploiting this new resource stream.

Many will draw parallels between seabed mining and the conventional mining on dry land, although the marine ecosystem is much more fragile and harder to control pollution.

Kenya has already taken steps in recent years to protect its territorial waters against unauthorised exploitation, most visibly through the formation of a coastguard unit in its security hierarchy charged with among other things maritime security and safety, fisheries protection and protection of maritime resources.

LAW OF THE SEA

The country has proclaimed 200 nautical miles (nm) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) within the Indian Ocean as provided for by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with an ocean area of about 142,000 square kilometres.

The northern boundary of the exclusive economic zone with Somalia is however the subject of a dispute that is currently before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Kenya has applied for an extra 150 nm EEZ extension for the exploitation of bottom ocean bed resources. This amounts to 245,000 square kilometres total ocean area which is 42 percent of her total land area making Kenya a maritime state.

The field of marine research is largely underexplored in Kenya however, with the country poorly equipped with advanced technology to commence deep sea exploration.

Kenya, through ISA, has however been sending scientists in China to acquire skills in deep sea mineral exploration, partly with an eye on the potential windfall from battery makers.