Humanity may not exactly be winning the battle to avert climate change, but the electrification of cars is starting to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger cars sold around the world last year were electric, powered by batteries rather than gasoline.
Yet that revolution has its own dirty side. If the goal is to electrify everything we have now as quickly as possible – including millions of new trucks and SUVs with ranges comparable to gas-powered models – there will be a huge increase in demand for minerals used in batteries such as lithium , nickel and cobalt. That means many more holes in the ground – nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to an estimate by Benchmark Minerals – and with it much more pollution and ecological destruction. That’s why a new study published today by researchers at UC Davis seeks to chart a different path, one where decarbonization can be achieved with less damage and perhaps faster. It starts with fewer cars.
The analysis focuses on lithium, an element found in nearly every electric car 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 messy affair. 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 how a falling water table near a lithium mine does to the drought in the Atacama Desert and how indigenous groups have been kept out of the benefits of extraction while hindering its drawbacks.
Riofrancos and the team looked at ways to eliminate gas-powered cars, but in a way that replaces them with fewer electric cars, with smaller batteries. A future with millions of large, long-range eSUVs is not the norm. Still, “the goal isn’t to say, ‘No new mining, ever,'” said Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis who co-authored the study. Instead, she says the researchers found that “we can do this better” if people become less dependent on cars to get around.
The team mapped out five paths for the US, each targeting different lithium demand scenarios. In the first, the world continues on its current path: cars become electric, Americans maintain their love for big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person remains the same. Few people take public transport because, frankly, most of the systems are still bad.
The other scenarios model worlds with ever-improving public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land-use policies are moving everything — homes, shops, jobs, schools — closer together, reducing commuting and other routine travel. Trains are replacing buses and the proportion of people who own a car is falling dramatically. In this world, fewer new electric vehicles will be sold in 2050 than in 2021, and the ones that do roll off the field have smaller electric batteries, made mostly of recycled materials, so each new one doesn’t need more mining to support it.