However, that revolution has its dirty side. If the goal is to electrify everything we have now, soon, including millions of new trucks and SUVs with similar ranges to gas-powered models, there will be a massive increase in demand for minerals used in batteries such as lithium, nickel and cobalt. That means far more holes in the ground — nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to an estimate by Benchmark Minerals — and far more pollution and ecological destruction along with them. That’s why a new she studies published today by researchers associated with UC Davis seeks to chart a different path, 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 present in almost all electric car battery designs. 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 mining is a tricky business. Thea Riofrancos, a Providence College political scientist who worked on the research project, knows what hundreds of new mines on the ground would look like. 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 excluded from the benefits of mining while being put in the way of its harms.
Riofrancos and team looked at the sunset paths of gas-powered cars, but in a way that replaces them with fewer electric vehicles. using smaller batteries. A future with millions of long-range, heavy eSUVs is not the default. However, “the goal is not to say, ‘No new mining, ever,'” says Alissa Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis who co-authored the research. Instead, she says researchers have found that “we can do it better” if people become less dependent on cars to get around.
The team charted five US pathways, each focusing on different scenarios for lithium demand. In the first, the world continues on the path it set out to: cars go electric, Americans maintain their love affair with big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person remains the same. Few people take public transportation because, frankly, most systems still suck.
The other scenarios model worlds with progressively better public transit and walking and cycling infrastructures. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land-use policies allow everything — homes, shops, jobs, schools — to come together, reducing commutes and other routine commutes. Trains are replacing buses and the share of people owning cars is falling dramatically. In this world, fewer new EVs are sold in 2050 than are sold in 2021, and those that roll off the lot have smaller electric batteries, made mostly from recycled materials, so any new one doesn’t need as much 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 they drive in general. This is tricky because it requires something people typically dislike: change. To become less car dependent, people should change their commuting habits, change their preferences for the type of car they drive, and ask themselves how many trips they take and why.
At the heart of the project is the idea that, contrary to what some automakers would have you believe, simply swapping one type of car for another won’t save the world from the disaster of climate change. Consumerism has brought us here; he can’t get us out.
The analysis finds that too recycling of electric vehicle batteries— an idea that automakers and battery makers have rallied to and that demands nothing of drivers — won’t by itself prevent a lithium crisis. That’s because in the next 10 to 15 years, most EVs will be relatively new, and there won’t be enough old batteries to go around. That makes other factors, such as the reduction in the number of new cars and the size of the batteries in them, even more important, says Riofrancos. “It is extremely significant that no one did [this kind of analysis],” she says. “The hegemony of car culture is even more dominant than I thought.”
How to break that grip? The best strategy is to make people feel like they’re making money by making fewer car trips, not losing money, says Riofrancos. For actively want a future in which cars are less important and, above all, since many people already think so, believe that it is actually achievable.
It might start to feel like a fairy tale, a beautiful but unattainable goal for places where car ownership is literally etched into the landscape across streets and parking lots. But Kendall argues that even in car-dependent places like the United States, it’s possible with gradual changes. “Right now, we have really bad transit all around us,” she says. “But we expect the transit to be profitable. We don’t expect the roads to be profitable.”
A good option is to involve people ebikes It’s inside ebusthat require a fraction of the lithium per rider needed for personal electric cars (and especially huge SUVs and electric trucks). It is possible that some people will do this voluntarily if made aware of the impact of mining battery materials. But governments may also need to wield some “sticks” thoughtfully, says Riofrancos.
Norway; the state of New York; and Washington, DC, have introduced higher rates for heavier personal cars, a move that may dissuade some people from buying the larger SUVs and truck-style electric vehicles. In the future, car safety regulations could also penalize adding extra weight in vehicles using larger batteries, Riofrancos says. And he suggests that regulations emulating fuel economy rules could be created to incentivize more efficient use of battery materials.
For the United States in particular, reducing dependence on the car and therefore the demand for battery materials will require changes to the infrastructure of cities. Some places have already been successful in transferring people from cars to bicycles or even just to their feet.
A federally funded program in 2005 involved four very different US communities: Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin are investing a total of $100 million in walking and biking trails. A sequel she studies found that the number of trips made by bike increased by 36% and those made on foot increased by 14%. The share of car trips decreased by 3%. These efforts haven’t drastically reduced car use, but they have shown that investing changes people’s behavior, says Kevin Mills, policy manager at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit group that oversaw the study.
A funding bill approved by the US Congress 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, 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 transportation other than cars, she says.
It’s just the beginning, and a far cry from the more radical and under-resourced scenarios the report’s authors envision, says Riofrancos, plans that see cities somehow become much denser and drive transit to the suburbs. But a positive development in those projections for demand for materials, 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 future to a fossil-fuel one: What would it look like if a portion of cars went electric? Today it is a fact that tomorrow there will be fewer petrol cars on the road, maybe almost none. That means people can start asking a much more interesting question: Should conventional cars be replaced?