Welcome to our new explainer series, taking important topics and going deeper!
How sustainable are electric cars and lithium batteries?
Lithium is the planet’s lightest metal, as well as being extremely energy-dense. As such, they are ideal for manufacturing batteries with a very long life. These factors make it the most popular choice for rechargeable batteries that are used in many everyday devices, including mobile phones and electric vehicles. The demand for lithium is expected to skyrocket thanks to some key developments in policies. The Inflation Reduction Act makes a large push for electric vehicles through regulations and incentives. New Jersey, along with a few other states, plan to ban sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035. This will require many new mines. Current global production of lithium is far outpaced by US demand for the mineral, driven by EVs.1
As of June 2023, New Jersey has over 123,000 registered EVs including both Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV) and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV). Governor Phil Murphy set a goal of having 330,000 EVs registered by 2025.2
What are the negative impacts?
EVs will always be more environmentally friendly than traditional cars with internal combustion engines, because they do not require continuous extraction of fossil fuels, and tailpipe emissions are completely eliminated.3 Because transportation is the sector with the biggest contribution to carbon emissions in the US, decarbonizing it is one of the best and most pressing ways to reach climate goals. However, it is important to know there are significant negative impacts, especially associated with the mining of lithium. Quickly ramping up production will certainly lead to big consequences. Though the United States has some of the largest reserves in the world, we only have one large-scale lithium mine in Nevada. Almost all of the raw lithium used domestically comes from Latin America or Australia. The race to decarbonization might very well lead to increased geopolitical tensions.
What’s so bad about mining?
Mining is an economic sector with one of the worst human rights records, and traditional mining is among the dirtiest businesses. Additionally, the environmental effects are often devastating, with risks of permanently damaging land. And in the US, about three quarters of all known deposits are located near tribal land. In a world that is in many areas becoming drier and drier, the water intensity of lithium mining is worrisome. Other raw materials needed for EV batteries, such as cobalt and nickel, require similarly intense mining as well. In Nevada, there are efforts to scale up mining operations, which in 2021 caused upset from a tribal group and environmentalists, as it would use up billions of gallons of groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for some hundred years to come, and leave behind large amounts of waste. This is not uncommon, and is most likely inherent to mining projects, in that it will harm the environment and the local communities.4
Can’t we recycle the batteries?
Decarbonizing the transportation sector is necessary and Recycling lithium batteries is still developing, and most batteries are still in their useful life cycles, meaning they are at a healthy capacity and being used for their original purpose, such as in EVs. Recycling these batteries would help avoid waste management processes and prevent the harmful effects of mining even for more materials to make the same amount of new batteries. In itself, recycling is not inherently good or bad. However, this could represent a big opportunity for a low-impact and more circular battery supply chain. There have been advances in the recycling processes of lithium batteries, which will be put to the test in the coming years as a large amount of batteries start to reach the end of their lives. Luckily, it is already happening. EV batteries can be taken out and put into a new EV, usually if it has been in use for less than 15 years. The batteries can also be reused, connected to other EV batteries, and used to provide power for the grid. Through recycling, up to 95% of the batteries’ materials can be recovered, including such critical minerals as lithium, cobalt, and nickel.5 That’s pretty cool since these are difficult to obtain and have major environmental implications associated with mining.
How can we achieve zero emissions while supporting environmental justice?
Decarbonizing the transportation sector is necessary and possible. It can also be done in a way that avoids the currently predicted exponential rise in demand for lithium mining. It will require a paradigm shift, policy changes, and prioritizing public and active transit, which is no small task. However, these changes will lead to a more equitable society, better-protected ecosystems, respect for Indigenous rights, and support for environmental justice globally. Lessening demand for lithium will, in turn, protect the ecosystems and communities harmed by mining operations. Given the human rights track record of the mining industry, it is absolutely essential for Indigenous communities to be involved in land use decisions, meaningfully compensated for damage done to their land, communities, and livelihoods and beneficiaries of the transportation electrification transition.6
What else can we do?
The best way to avoid the negative impacts of lithium mining is to reduce the demand. Though it might seem an impossible task, turning away from such a car-centric society and instead investing in walkable cities and public transportation infrastructure will greatly reduce the carbon emissions from the transportation sector in a much more sustainable way than keeping the same structure but with electric cars. In fact, the benefits of such a shift would spill over manyfold. In the meantime, everything you’ve been hearing for ages is still a great start! Take advantage of public transportation if you can, walk or bike to work, or try carpooling. Princeton’s walk score is 77/100, and its bike score is 88/100, and most errands can be accomplished without taking the car!
Stay tuned for more!
We will be sharing our explainers at the end of every month. If there are topics you’d like to know more about, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- https://www.nrdc.org/press-releases/nrdc-report-building-batteries-better ↩︎
- https://dep.nj.gov/drivegreen/nj-ev-data/ ↩︎
- https://www.climateandcommunity.org/more-mobility-less-mining ↩︎