Humanity may not be winning its battle against climate change, but the electrification of cars is beginning to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger cars sold worldwide last year were electric vehicles, which ran on batteries instead of gasoline — which to obtain costs the world not only in harmful carbon emissions but also in local environmental damage to frontline communities.
Still, this 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 similar to gas-powered models — demand for minerals used in batteries, like lithium, nickel and cobalt, increase massively. That means a lot more holes in the ground – nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to a Benchmark Minerals estimate – and with it a lot more pollution and environmental degradation. That’s why a new study released today by researchers at UC Davis attempts to suggest a different route, one in which 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 electric car battery design. The metal is abundant on Earth, but mining is concentrated in a few places like Australia, Chile and China. And like other forms of mining, lithium extraction is a dirty business. Thea Riofrancos, a Providence College political scientist 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 is affecting drought conditions in the Atacama Desert, and how tribal groups have been excluded from the benefits of extraction while standing in the way of its harm.
Riofrancos and the team investigated pathways to gas-powered cars, but in a way that replaces them with fewer electric vehicles with smaller batteries. A future of millions of beefy, long-range eSUVs is not the norm. 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 co-authored the study. Instead, she says, the researchers found that “we can do better” if people rely less on cars to get around.
The team has designed five paths for the US, each focusing on different lithium demand scenarios. In the first, the world stays on the path it has charted for itself: cars go electric, Americans nurture their love of big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person stays the same. Few people take public transport because, frankly, most systems continue to suck.
The other scenarios model worlds with increasingly better infrastructure for public transport and pedestrians and cyclists. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land-use policies allow everything—homes, businesses, workplaces, schools—to move closer together, commutes and other routine trips shrink. Trains are replacing buses and the proportion of people who own a car at all is falling dramatically. In this world, fewer new electric vehicles will be sold in 2050 than in 2021, and those rolling off the parking lot have smaller electric batteries made mostly from recycled materials, so each new vehicle doesn’t require more mining to support it.