Will the rise of the electric car cause the destruction of tropical forests?

Electric cars are much better for the environment than petrol or diesel cars. But there is a downside to this alternative: with the increasing demand for electric cars, the demand for nickel is also increasing. This article shows how the advance of clean technology can mean the destruction of unique nature, for example on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. What is needed to prevent this?

Header photo: (c) IUCN NL

An electric car emits 40% less CO2 over its lifetime than a fuel-powered car. The electric car is therefore on the rise: despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of registered electric cars will increase by 41% by 2020. But what many people do not know is that the production of batteries for these cars is putting increasing pressure on tropical forests. The same applies to solar panels, wind turbines and other technology required for the green energy transition. They require minerals such as nickel, lithium, copper and cobalt.

30 kg of nickel per car

Electric cars run on batteries. Nickel is an essential component of most technologies for rechargeable batteries. Although there are different types of batteries and work is being done on new compositions, most batteries contain substantial amounts of nickel: one electric car requires about 30 kilograms (kg) of nickel. 

Substantial increase expected

By the end of 2020, there will be 10 million electric cars on the road worldwide, containing around 300 million kg of nickel. The production and sale of electric vehicles is expected to increase significantly in the coming years. The European Union has already expressed the ambition to scale up the share of electric passenger cars on its roads to 30% by 2030. That is about 30 million electric cars a year, or 900 million kg of nickel a year.

  • What is nickel used for?

    Nickel is an important product in the batteries of rechargeable electronic devices, such as mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Nickel is highly resistant to corrosion. That is why it is often a component of stainless steel. Stainless steel can be found in almost every kitchen. But it is also often used in the industry, where corrosive substances, such as nitric acid, are handled. Nickel is also a component of superalloys: alloys that can withstand extremely high temperatures, for example jet engines. Nickel is also used in galvanic processes and as a chemical catalyst.

Of course, nickel is not only used for batteries. It is also a common component of stainless steel and has several other applications.

Large part impossible to reach

Nickel covers 1.8% of the earth’s mass. That is an enormous amount. But not all nickel is accessible: the largest majority is in the core of the Earth and is impossible to reach.

In the Earth’s crust, nickel makes up less than 0.01% of the mass. Of course it is not evenly distributed: it occurs in certain geological formations, namely in ultramafic igneous rocks. These contain high concentrations of nickel and are therefore the typical target of nickel mines. Nickel deposits in these hard rock formations are already largely depleted and it is unlikely that substantial new nickel deposits will be discovered.

But there is another way in which nickel can be concentrated in ultramafic rocks: in so-called weathering soils. This starts with the weathering of these rocks over millions of years and requires a specific combination of the right topography and hydrology. Seasonal and abundant rainfall, combined with warm temperatures, can cause nickel to be found somewhat concentrated on mountain ridges and hillsides.

This combination of geology and climate is not common, but occurs in certain places in Indonesia, the Philippines, the island of New Caledonia and parts of Australia.

Important biodiversity

It is precisely these places that harbour an enormous biodiversity. In Indonesia, for example, many of these areas are on the island of Sulawesi, including the Tompotika peninsula. It is an area rich in endemic and threatened species, such as the maleo bird. After years of effort by the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (AlTo), the population in this area has quadrupled in the last 15 years.

But recently Tompotika has been on the radar for at least eight new commercial nickel mines, for example for Tesla’s electric cars.

Destruction of tropical forests

Nickel mining in many cases leads to the destruction of tropical forests, pollution of air and water, damage to coral reefs and the marine environment, extermination of wildlife populations (including threatened and endangered species) and ecological and social damage to local communities.

Fear for the survival of maleo

In the case of the Tompotika peninsula, these risks also apply. Mining in this area would be at the expense of tropical forests and coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs. AlTo and IUCN NL fear for the survival of the maleo and many other species, which do not occur naturally anywhere else than on Sulawesi.

‘That’s because of the way nickel is extracted from deposits like this,’ says Marcy Summers, biologist and founder of AlTo. By cutting down all the trees in the area and scraping away the upper soil layers and everything that lives on it. This type of mining is called strip mining and it has disastrous consequences for the plant and animal species living in the area.

Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) Megapode, bird endemic to Sulawesi, Indonesia, Communal nesting colony. ENDANGERED © Kevin Schafer
  • Why is nickel mining so harmful to biodiversity?

    This is due to the way nickel is mined from weathering soils.

    Nickel deposits in weathering soils may be extensive in area, but the zinc concentration is low: 1 to 2%. The concentration zone is usually 10 to 20 m beneath the surface and the nickel concentration is highest just above the bedrock. The only way to mine these deposits is to roll the whole area down and scrape away the top layers of soil and everything that lives on it. This is called strip-mining.

Especially harmful in the tropics

Open-pit mining is harmful to nature everywhere, but in the tropics it is especially problematic: in many cases it means flattening of the rainforest. This is also the case for the plannend nickel mines in Sulawesi.

  • Why is open-pit mining especially harmful in the tropics?

    Open-pit mining is harmful to nature everywhere, but in the tropics it is especially problematic: in many cases it means the complete destruction of the rainforest.

    Due to the unique composition of the laterite soils from ultramafic rocks, most of the plants that grow there do not exist anywhere else. Therefore, opencast mining destroys unique and very diverse vegetation over a large area. It also wipes out the habitat of many animal species.

    Moreover, this type of nickel mining is only possible in areas with a lot of rainfall on hilltops and slopes. This makes it virtually impossible to prevent erosion and makes landscape restoration very difficult.

Exploration drilling and mining permits

On the Tompotika peninsula on Sulawesi, there are already a number of nickel mines. These are located at some distance from the nature reserves that AlTo protects. Since 2006, the organisation has been working with local communities to preserve natural ecosystems and animal species, such as the critically endangered maleo bird.

But in recent years, numerous exploratory drillings have been carried out and mining licences have been issued in areas of primary importance for the conservation of forests and biodiversity. Until now, mining has been avoided in most of these areas, but nature organisations fear – especially given the increasing demand for nickel – that it will happen anyway in the near future.

Doing everything to protect crucial nature

With the support of IUCN NL, AlTo is doing everything to protect the crucial nature on the peninsula and to stop mining in this important ecosystem. Also in other areas, IUCN NL, together with local partner organisations, is committed to prevent mining in vulnerable nature reserves, such as in the Philippine province of Palawan.

Energy transition with an eye for people and nature

In the Netherlands, IUCN NL draws attention to the unintended effects of the green energy transition on nature in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines and advocates the above-mentioned measures, so that the necessary transition to renewable energy takes place with respect for people and nature. 

Consuming less, recycling more

In the Netherlands we can also contribute to ensuring that the demand for raw materials does not cause unnecessary damage to critical natural areas. Firstly, by limiting demand: by consuming less and recycling more.

To sustainably source the raw materials needed for the energy transition, three things are indispensable: transparency, strong local laws and regulations, and voluntary and mandatory sustainability standards for companies.

Consumers also have a role to play in limiting the demand for raw materials. AlTo gives the following tips:

  • Practice and promote policies that move us toward a steady-state economy rather than unending economic growth.
  • Drive less and keep your existing car well-maintained and going as long as possible.
  • If you must buy a new car, seek vehicles that use non-nickel batteries or have other sustainable energy systems, such as hydrogen.
  • Demand recycling of battery components and support companies that practice this.
  • Continue to support tropical forest conservation efforts.