humans may not The battle to avoid climate change is indeed being won, but the electrification of cars is already starting to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger cars sold globally last year were electric, powered by batteries rather than gasoline — and mining such vehicles would not only emit toxic carbon emissions but also cause local environmental damage to frontline communities.
Still, the revolution has its sordid side. If the goal is to electrify everything we have now — including millions of new trucks and SUVs with ranges similar to gasoline-powered models — as soon as possible, demand for minerals used in batteries such as lithium, nickel and cobalt will increase dramatically . That means more holes in the ground — nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to one Benchmark Minerals estimate — and more pollution and ecological damage with it. That’s why a new study published today by researchers affiliated with UC Davis attempts to chart a different path, one that could lead to decarbonization with less harm, and perhaps faster. It starts with fewer cars.
The analysis focused on lithium, an element found in nearly all EV battery designs. The metal is abundant on Earth, but mining is concentrated in a handful of places, including Australia, Chile and China. 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 look like on the ground. She has seen first-hand the impact of falling water tables near lithium mines on the arid conditions of the Atacama Desert, and how indigenous groups are excluded from the benefits of mining while being harmed.
Riofrancos and his team looked at the path to sunsetting gasoline-powered cars, but by replacing them with fewer electric vehicles, using smaller batteries. A future of millions of long-range, heavy-duty eSUVs isn’t the default. Still, “our goal is not to say, ‘Never do new mining,'” said Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis and a co-author of the study. Instead, she said researchers found that “we could do a lot better” if people were less dependent on cars for getting around.
The team developed five pathways for the U.S., each focusing on a different scenario for lithium demand. First, the world continues on the path it laid out for itself: cars go electric, Americans continue to love big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per capita stays the same. Very few people take public transportation because, frankly, most systems are still terrible.
Other scenarios simulate worlds where public transport, walking and cycling infrastructures are gradually improving. In the greenest of them all, changes in housing and land-use policy have brought everything—homes, shops, jobs, schools—closer together, reducing commutes and other daily trips. Trains have replaced buses, and the proportion of the population that owns a car has dropped dramatically. In a world where fewer new electric cars will be sold in 2050 than in 2021, and those that do roll off the assembly line have smaller batteries made mostly from recycled materials, so every new electric car doesn’t need to be replaced. Much mining to support it.