Federal election promises for zero-emission vehicles have a catch

The Narwhal

Federal election vows of electric vehicles prompt responsible mining questions

As the federal election looms, leaders of all political stripes are promising to increase the zero-emission transportation sector through incentives and investments as a key tool to tackle the climate crisis.

But there’s a catch. 

Positioning Canada as a leader in electrifying the transportation sector also means increasing mineral extraction to fuel that growth. Batteries that propel electric vehicles are powered by minerals like lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel. 

The transition is necessary, given the implications of the alternative: continuing to burn fossil fuels as our means of getting around. The transportation sector in Canada currently accounts for around 25 per cent of national greenhouse gas emissions, around 180 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, according to Natural Resources Canada. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned, “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5 C or even 2 C will be beyond reach.” 

At the end of 2020, Canada had over 200,000 electric vehicles on the roadand according to International Energy Association projections, that number could rise to over 2.5 million by 2030.

The question is: what does the growth of the electric vehicle sector look like on a landscape level?

In northern Québec, a new lithium-tantalum mine is set to start production in 2024 after receiving approval from the federal government in August, and several other Québec lithium mines are in various stages of exploration and investment. The new Critical Elements Corporation mine will emit an estimated 74,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, over its 20-year lifespan. In Northwest Territories, mining companies are eyeing cobalt reserves and across the country, mining activity is ramping up as demand increases for other minerals needed for the zero-emissions transportation sector, clean energy and other emerging industries.

Advocates for responsible mining practices caution that getting those minerals out of the ground also comes with its own environmental and social impacts.

“One of our concerns is that the transition to low-carbon energy sources and electric vehicles comes at the expense of negative legacies and mining impacts,” Nikki Skuce, co-founder of BC Mining Law Reform Network, told The Narwhal in an interview. 

For example, Skuce has pointed to the ongoing impact of B.C.’s Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014, after a tailings dam failure led to 24 million cubic metres of mining waste being spilled into an important salmon watershed.

Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada, said the growth of the electric vehicle sector could be a catalyst for Canada to address some of these issues and prevent future disasters. 

“The opportunity for battery manufacturing, which is going to require an increase in metals and minerals, is an opportunity for us to really ensure we clean up mining from an environmental and a social perspective,” she said in an interview.

Liberals and Conservatives promise to support mineral extraction for clean energy

Not all political parties acknowledge the link between mineral extraction and widespread adoption of zero-emission vehicles, but each of the four largest parties vying for federal leadership promise to support the growth of the sector. 

For example, the Green Party’s election platform highlights Canada’s opportunity to “become a world leader in cleantech and renewable energy,” noting those sectors are “where the jobs of the future are, and how we will stay globally competitive and build a prosperous sustainable future.” The party also promised to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles by 2030.

Jamie Kneen, co-founder and communications coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, said he agrees this is necessary and important. But he also believes it would be missing the point to only focus the conversation on increasing electric vehicle sales and infrastructure.

“I think that any commitment or any discussion of zero-emission vehicles has to be in the context of our commitment to not using private vehicles,” he said in an interview. “The bigger question is, how are we going to actually shift the transportation paradigm so that it’s more accessible and more equitable and less carbon intensive? Just putting people into public transit makes a much more immediate and bigger difference, even if they’re diesel buses.”

Read the full article at The Narwhal.