The paradox of electric vehicles: Can EVs ever be truly sustainable?

It is no news that transport contributes to around one-fifth of global carbon emissions, of which 75% come from road vehicles such as cars and buses (Ritchie, 2020). In recent years there has been a global shift to counter this trend, with millions of individuals across the globe embracing the idea of electric mobility. Indeed, the electric car has emerged as a popular symbol of individual action against climate change.

A road marker of an electric car charging point

EVs present a paradox

Tesla is a dominant player in this market and, in an effort to be even more environmentally friendly by directly sourcing its materials, recently purchased the Goro nickel mine in New Caledonia (Dorner, 2022). This French island territory in the South Pacific holds one-quarter of the world’s nickel reserves, a mineral that is essential for the production of lithium batteries needed for electric vehicles (Razdan, 2022).

This brings me to the question: can EVs be truly sustainable? Well, you guessed it, folks, unfortunately not. The truth is that they are by no means free of environmental and social impacts. To put it differently, EVs present a paradox: while they reduce our personal emissions and are seen as a ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ technology, the process of extracting the ingredients that make up those EVs is environmentally destructive and often exploits Global South and Indigenous communities (Lennon, 2017).

Not only does this capitalist practice of extracting nickel generate inequality, but it is in fact made by it. As Appel (2018) states: “global markets … do not merely deepen racialized and gendered postcolonial disparities; they are constituted by them” (para. 1). Indeed, mining in New Caledonia began soon after it was colonized in 1853 and was carried out by enslaved local people (Beech, 2021).

An electric car being charged

Neocolonial exploitation has been a means to an end

To this day, mining practices in the Pacific archipelago operate in the same way and are closely related to the exploitation of the territory’s Indigenous Kanak people (Beech, 2021). As a way to resist the appropriation and extraction of value from their land, in their fight for self-determination, Kanak workers and villagers barricaded the road to the Goro mine in 2021 and set the facility on fire. In the words of André Vama, one of the many Kanaks involved in the uprising: “this is our national patrimony, our assets, and the Kanaks, who are victims of history, are not in control of what should be ours” (Beech, 2021, para. 23). It is needless to say that such resistance is not limited to New Caledonia. Indigenous peoples around the world are struggling to increase their authority over land and the territories they inhabit (Aguilar-Støen, 2017).

I believe this highlights the impersonal attitudes of many ‘modern’ development corporations such as Tesla that are often more interested in the end results of their projects than the means through which they are achieved. As the production of electric vehicles increases and the demand for nickel soars, the neocolonial exploitation and destruction associated with mining will only get worse in the near future for the Kanak of New Caledonia. Therefore, while the transition toward renewable energy is necessary, it is a double-edged sword that deserves critical analysis.

This blog was written as part of the core module ‘Anthropology of Sustainability' for the MA Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability.

About the author

Marta Puasilli studies MA Anthropology of Global Futures and Sustainability at SOAS.