Study calls for reduction in car ownership, battery size and vehicle dependency to limit environmental impact of surging lithium demand
A report prepared by the Climate and Community Project, a climate policy think tank, with researchers from UC Davis, suggests that the United States can achieve zero emissions transportation while limiting the amount of lithium mining necessary by reducing the car dependence of the transportation system, decreasing the size of electric vehicle batteries, and maximizing lithium recycling.
The report says that reordering the US transportation system through policy and spending shifts to prioritize public and active transit while reducing car dependency can also ensure transit equity, protect ecosystems, respect Indigenous rights, and meet the demands of global justice.
US consumers are embracing electric vehicles (EVs), with more than half of the nation’s car sales predicted to be electric by 2030. A crucial aspect of electrified transportation is new demand for metals, and specifically the most non-replaceable metal for EV batteries—lithium. If today’s demand for EVs is projected to 2050, the lithium requirements of the US EV market alone in 2050 would require triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market. This boom in demand would be met by the expansion of mining.
Some level of mining is necessary to build out zero-emission energy systems, the report concedes, but notes that the volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed.
The authors designed a material flow analysis paired with socioeconomic pathway modeling to determine possible scenarios for the decarbonization of personal transportation in the US. They then compared the lithium requirements of four pathways to zero-emissions personal transportation: an electrified continuation of the current US car-dependent status quo, and three scenarios that adopt increasingly ambitious policies to support public and active transportation and reduced car dependency.
Results show that:
Compared to a decarbonization scenario that maintains US vehicle ownership rates, scenarios that reduce car dependency, and therefore use and ownership, and limit EV battery size can lower the demand for lithium between 18-66%.
Even if the car-centricity of the US transportation system continues, limiting the size of EV batteries alone can cut lithium demand by as much as 42%.
Annual lithium demand reduction for us passenger transport as a function of best and worst cases for future vehicle ownership rates, vehicle design, and recycling in 2050. Reductions scale proportionally; for example, recycling reduces lithium demand by 50% for any scenario combination chosen. Riofrancos et al.
The authors examined four cases of lithium mining: Argentina, Chile, the United States, and Portugal. In each of these cases, proposed or ongoing lithium mining has implications for drought intensity, ecosystem biodiversity, and Indigenous sovereignty and/or community participation in projects that threaten cultural landscapes and economic livelihoods, the authors said. Reducing the lithium intensity of electrified transportation would in turn mitigate a key driver of these harms.
Lithium supply chains span the world from Latin America to China to Australia, with new extraction being planned in Europe, Canada, the United States and beyond. The massive uptick in demand is already producing supply bottlenecks for EV production, slowing EV uptake, calling into question their affordability, and stoking geopolitical tension as nations compete for access to lithium deposits. Lowering the amount of lithium necessary for decarbonization will limit bottlenecks and lower the potential of environmental degradation, injustice, and conflicts associated with mining.
Mining-related harms and looming supply constraints are two reasons to reduce the material intensity of electrified transportation, the authors said. In addition, existing research has found expanding mass transit hastens decarbonization.
A combination of vehicle electrification, declines in car usage and ownership, and reductions in the size and weight of personal vehicles (to increase their energy efficiency) are necessary steps that must be pursued in combination to remain within a sectoral carbon budget consistent with limiting to 1.5-2°C of warming.
The speed of decarbonization of light-duty vehicles is limited by the turnover of the existing vehicle fleet and its replacement with EVs, as well as the decarbonization of the electricity grid. Producing EVs and building and maintaining roads, highways, and parking lots are energy- and emissions-intensive processes with high levels of embodied carbon.
Comparative chart of e-Hummer, EV, e-bus, and e-bike lithium intensities.Riofrancos et al.
Electrification of the US transportation system will massively increase the demand for electricity while the transition to a decarbonized electricity grid is still underway, increasing the magnitude of that challenge. Public transit and active transit tend to be more energy-efficient methods of allowing people to move around; increasing the shares of travel happening by these modes will hasten decarbonization.
Reducing the size of passenger vehicles also can make the roads far safer because smaller cars have fewer and less severe crashes. Making bus routes, metros, electric bikes faster, safer, and more convenient will disproportionately support low-income and non-white community members, the authors said.
Thea Riofrancos, Alissa Kendall, Kristi K. Dayemo, Matthew Haugen, Kira McDonald, Batul Hassan, Margaret Slattery, and Xan Lillehei (2023) “Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining,” Climate and Community Project