The preaching of the EV gospel has reached evangelical proportions. We are told to believe in EVs (electric vehicles), buy them at whatever cost, drive them and love them, or face damnation.
Politicians advertise what they claim are the sparkling clean, green credentials of EVs.
Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter, for example, plans to push through legislation this parliamentary term for her "feebate" scheme. This would impose further new taxes on people buying ordinary cars and hand the money to those buying new, expensive EVs. The goal is to speed up the conversion of New Zealand's 4 million-strong car fleet to EVs.
No one in authority seems to have stopped to ask just how environmentally friendly EVs are.
In New Zealand at least, few have asked what we know about the supply chains of EV batteries, including the human-rights implications. As part of a decision to approve an investment in a company interested in technology for new hydrogen cars, I have. And the evidence is that EVs risk an environmental catastrophe in New Zealand, and a human-rights issue globally.
I believe that when these supply chain issues are fully understood by the public, and misinformation about how clean and green EVs are is replaced with facts, Genter's "feebate" scheme will be seen for what is – Labour and the Greens jumping on the EV bandwagon without properly considering the full impact, either upstream or downstream.
The essential difference between ordinary cars and EVs is the latter's massive batteries.
These are not the normal 12-volt batteries found in ordinary cars that can be recycled and present little, if any, risk to our environment or to global labour standards.
To allow EVs to drive up to 500km on a single charge, these batteries are made out of lithium, cobalt, graphite and nickel mined in the world's poorest countries.
After the EV battery loses its ability to hold a charge, its metals and chemicals contain toxic substances that are currently very difficult and expensive to dispose of cleanly. Technology hasn't developed enough globally to find a way to either dispose of them safely, nor to recycle them in the volumes we will need. The fear is that they will end up being dumped in landfills unless we seriously ramp up recycling plants on a mass scale.
The average EV battery weighs over 500kg or half a tonne, is heavy in lithium and lasts a maximum of eight years. If Genter wants all New Zealand's 4 million vehicles to be EVs, she will first need to outline the plan to dispose of these millions of toxic used batteries.
She will have her work cut out. Imagine a near-future where 4 million used EV batteries must be disposed of every eight years. That's more than 2 million tonnes of used toxic EV batteries in New Zealand alone.
One option is to build giant specialist EV battery recycling plants, probably requiring vast government subsidies to establish. This option is completely untested so it cannot be relied upon. It certainly hasn't been promoted publicly by the EV lobby.
Another option is to ship the toxic batteries to countries that make money from taking the developed world's rubbish. Not only would most New Zealanders regard this as morally unacceptable, but thousands of journeys by huge vessels would be required, with significant carbon costs.
In reality, the only alternative is to bury them here in New Zealand.
Huge areas of land would need to be converted to graveyards for toxic lithium batteries. Suddenly, the clean, green future with EVs that Genter advocates looks extremely dirty and hazardous to human and animal life.
There is no information on how we are to stop these toxic chemicals seeping through the ground into our waterways. That's despite the fact that even tiny amounts can induce extreme nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, blurred vision and dizziness in animals and humans.
In the meantime, used EV batteries are prone to spontaneous combustion, emitting poisonous gases into our air. The gases from the fires would travel large distances and be a huge risk to animals and humans. A recently published academic paper by Swedish scientists Fredrik Larsson and Petra Andersson concluded "fluoride gas emission from EV battery fires pose a serious toxic threat". They warned that not enough is known about the extreme danger from mass production of EV batteries.
Compared with normal fires, EV fires will be very difficult to put out. Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) national manager Paul Turner recently warned of the risk to human life from EV battery fires. He reports that EV battery fires trigger an irreversible chain reaction called thermal runaway burning, with fires burning at 1000C. Fire and Emergency is warning of the risks with the influx of a few thousand more EVs, let alone the 4 million that Genter and her party want to bring into New Zealand.
Many New Zealanders might prefer the vast amounts of lithium and cobalt used in EV batteries be left in the ground in the first place. Already with mobile phone battery production, lithium and cobalt are booming industries but ones to which we perhaps prefer to turn a blind eye. Lithium mining creates major water pollution, but perhaps even worse are the human rights abuses that come with it.
Bolivia, for example, is the world's largest supplier of lithium but has one of the world's worst records for child labour, with children legally commencing full-time mining at the age 10.
Even more horrifying are the human rights violations in the production of cobalt for EV batteries in the Congo, where more than half of the world's cobalt is mined. A CNN investigation tracked the cobalt used for the production of luxury EVs to Congolese child-labour camps, involving children as young as seven. Adult supervisors were filmed assaulting children for not following instructions. The mines are underground, not ventilated, and the children are breathing in the polluted air and being beaten if they don't follow orders. It is not known how many have been killed.
If New Zealand is to import EVs on the enormous scale Genter is proposing, we need a well-informed public debate about the cost of EV battery production in terms of both the environment and human rights violations.
Under the Guiding Principles of Human Rights published by the United Nations, all member states and their business communities have an obligation to ensure the supply chains of goods they import are free from child labour exploitation. If these principles are being followed by the Ardern Government when it comes to importing EVs, Genter owes it to us to explain how that can be reconciled with the horrors CNN uncovered in its investigation.
If they are determined to go down the EV path, the Greens and the Labour-NZ First Coalition must urgently and seriously consider – and clearly reveal to the public – how they will address these very serious concerns regarding how to dispose of the dead EV batteries in an environmentally friendly manner and how to guarantee child labour is not being used in their production.
These issues need to be addressed openly and transparently before even considering subsidising more EVs coming into our country. If the Coalition and the Greens cannot do that, we need not just reconsider plans for the radical increase in imports, but consider stopping them immediately. The road we are on risks us tacitly supporting child slave labour and threatens an environmental catastrophe which the experts are already warning about.
Troy Bowker is executive chairman of Caniwi Capital Partners, which has a small part of its portfolio invested in Petroleum Equipment Services, a business which supplies infrastructure equipment to the petroleum industry. This business is actively supporting technology for the development of the hydrogen as an energy source.