Humanity cannot will definitely win the battle to prevent climate change, but electrification of cars has begun to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger cars sold worldwide last year were electric, battery-powered, not gasoline, costing the world not only in harmful carbon emissions but also localized environmental damage to frontline communities.
However, this revolution also has a dirty side. If the goal is to electrify everything we have now, including millions of new trucks and SUVs with a range similar to gasoline models, as soon as possible, the demand for minerals used in batteries, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, is skyrocketing. will increase. That means a lot more holes in the ground — nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to one Benchmark Minerals estimate — and with it a lot more pollution and environmental destruction. That’s why new studying published today by researchers affiliated with the University of California, Davis, attempts to chart a different path in which decarbonization can be achieved with less harm and perhaps more quickly. It all starts with fewer cars.
The analysis focuses on lithium, an element found in nearly every EV battery design. The metal is abundant on Earth, but mining is concentrated in a few places such as Australia, Chile and China. And like other forms of mining, lithium mining is a dirty business. Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College who worked on the research project, knows what hundreds of new mines on the ground will look like. She has seen how falling water tables near a lithium mine are affecting drought conditions in the Atacama Desert, and how indigenous peoples are being deprived of the benefits of mining while in the way of its harm.
Riofrancos and his team were looking for ways to end gasoline cars, but in a way that would replace them with fewer electric cars with smaller batteries. A future with millions of hefty long-range SUVs is not standard. However, “the goal is not to say, ‘There will never be any new mining,'” says Alyssa Kendall, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, co-author of the study. Instead, she says, the researchers found that “we can do it better” if people become less reliant on cars to get around.
The team outlined five paths for the US, each targeting a different scenario for lithium demand. In the first, the world continues on the path it carved for itself: cars go electric, Americans maintain their love of big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person stays the same. Few people use public transport because, frankly, most systems still suck.
Other scenarios simulate worlds with ever-improving public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land use policies are allowing everything—homes, shops, workplaces, schools—to move closer together, reducing commuting and other routine travel. Trains are replacing buses, and the proportion of people who own a car at all is plummeting. In this world, fewer new electric vehicles will be sold in 2050 than were sold in 2021, and those that roll off the assembly line have smaller electric batteries made up of mostly recycled materials, so no more mining is required to support each new electric vehicle. . It.