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The Earth Is Begging You to Accept Smaller EV Batteries

Humanity may not exactly be winning its battle to avert climate change, but the electrification of cars has begun to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger vehicles sold around the world last year were electric, powered by batteries instead of gasoline—the extraction of which costs the world not only in noxious carbon emissions, but in local environmental damage to the communities on the front lines. 

Still, that revolution has its own dirty side. If the goal is to electrify everything we have now, ASAP—including millions of new trucks and SUVs with ranges similar to gas-powered models—there will be a massive increase in demand for minerals used in batteries like lithium, nickel, and cobalt. That means a lot more holes in the ground—nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to one estimate from Benchmark Minerals—and a lot more pollution and ecological destruction along with them. It’s why a new study published today by researchers associated with UC Davis tries to map out a different path, one where decarbonization can be achieved with less harm, and perhaps faster. It starts with fewer cars.

The analysis focuses on lithium, an element found in almost every design of electric car batteries. The metal is abundant on Earth, but mining has been concentrated in a few places, such as Australia, Chile, and China. And like other forms of mining, lithium extraction is a messy business. Thea Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College who worked on the research project, knows what hundreds of new mines would look like on the ground. She has seen what a falling water table near a lithium mine does to drought conditions in the Atacama desert and how indigenous groups have been left out of the benefits of extraction while being put in the way of its harms. 

Riofrancos and the team looked at paths to sunset gas-powered cars, but in a way that replaces them with fewer EVs, using smaller batteries. A future with millions of long-range, hefty eSUVs isn’t the default. Still, “the goal isn’t to say, ‘No new mining, ever,” says Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis who coauthored the research. Instead, she says the researchers found that “we can do this better” if people become less reliant on cars to get around.

The team mapped out five paths for the US, each focusing on different scenarios for lithium demand. In the first, the world keeps on the path it has laid out for itself: Cars become electric, Americans sustain their love affair with big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person stays the same. Few people take public transit because, frankly, the majority of systems continue to suck. 

The other scenarios model worlds with progressively better public transit and walking and biking infrastructure. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land use policy allow everything—homes, shops, jobs, schools—to get closer together, shrinking commutes and other routine journeys. Trains replace buses, and the share of people who own a car at all drops dramatically. In this world, fewer new electric vehicles are sold in 2050 than were sold in 2021, and those that do roll off the lot have smaller electric batteries, made up of mostly recycled materials, so every new one doesn’t need more mining to support it.

Most of the benefits come from changes that few mineral demand forecasters consider: reducing the number of miles people drive and the number of cars driven overall. This is tricky because it requires something people typically don’t love—change. To become less car-dependent, people would have to change their habits for getting around, shift their preferences for the kinds of cars they drive, and question how many trips they take and why.

At the core of the project is the idea that, contrary to what some carmakers would like you to believe, simply replacing one kind of car with another won’t save the world from its climate change mess. Consumerism got us here; it can’t get us out.

The analysis finds that even electric vehicle battery recycling—an idea that automakers and battery manufacturers have rallied around and that requires nothing of drivers—won’t prevent a lithium crunch on its own. That’s because over the next 10 to 15 years, most EVs will be relatively new, and there won’t be enough old batteries to go around. This makes other factors, like reducing the number of new cars and the size of the batteries inside them, even more important, Riofrancos says. “It’s extremely telling that no one had done [this kind of analysis],” she says. “The hegemony of car culture is even more dominant than I thought.”  

How to break that stranglehold? The best strategy is to make people feel like they’re gaining something by taking fewer car trips, not losing, Riofrancos says. To actively want a future where cars are less important and—crucially, since many people already feel that way—believe it’s actually achievable.

That might begin to feel like a fairytale, a beautiful but unreachable goal for places in which car ownership is literally etched into the landscape through roads and parking lots. But Kendall argues that even in car-dependent places like the US, it is possible with gradual changes. “Right now, we’ve got really lousy transit all around us,” she says. “But we expect transit to be profitable. We don’t expect roads to be profitable.” 

One good option is to get people onto ebikes and into ebuses, which require a fraction of the lithium per rider needed for personal electric cars (and especially hulking electric SUVs and trucks). It’s possible some people might do that voluntarily if made aware of the impact of extracting battery materials. But governments may have to also thoughtfully wield some “sticks,” Riofrancos says.

Norway; the state of New York; and Washington, DC, have introduced higher fees for the heaviest personal cars, a move that may dissuade some people from buying the biggest SUV and truck-style EVs. In the future, car safety rules could also penalize packing extra weight into vehicles by using bigger batteries, Riofrancos says. And she suggests that regulations emulating fuel economy rules could be created to incentivize more efficient use of battery materials.

For the US, in particular, reducing car dependence and therefore battery material demand will require changes to cities’ infrastructure.  Some places have already seen success in shifting people out of cars and onto bikes or even just their feet.

A program funded by the federal government back in 2005 saw four very different US communities—Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin—invest a total of $100 million in walking and biking trails. A follow-up study found that the number of trips taken by bike increased 36 percent, and those taken by foot went up 14 percent. The share of driving trips went down by 3 percent. These efforts didn’t cut car use dramatically, but they demonstrated that with investment, people do change their behavior, says Kevin Mills, head of policy at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group that oversaw the study.  

A funding bill the US Congress passed in December will build on that work by sending $45 million to active transportation projects across the nation. Groups pushing for a less car-centric world have hailed the money as a major victory while acknowledging that when it comes to offering truly connected alternatives to roads, the funding is a drop in the bucket. “We know there are billions of dollars of need,” says Mills. The plan is to help communities use the money to “plant seeds” and demonstrate residents’ overwhelming demand for non-car forms of transport, he says. 

It’s only a start—and a far cry from the most radical, resource-light scenarios the report authors imagine, Riofrancos says, plans that involve cities somehow becoming much denser and bringing transit to the suburbs. But one positive development in those projections for materials demand, Riofrancos notes, is that our ability to even imagine them shows a paradigm shift in climate policy debates.

Not long ago, projecting the future of transportation was often a matter of comparing a battery-powered future to a fossil-fueled one—what would it look like if some share of cars went electric? Today, it’s a given that there will be fewer gas cars on the road tomorrow, perhaps barely any. That means people can start asking a much more interesting question: Should conventional cars be replaced at all? 

 

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