The transportation sector is the largest contributor to US greenhouse gas pollution, responsible for more than a quarter of all emissions. Both the Biden administration and the state of Massachusetts aim to eliminate those emissions by 2050, largely by getting people into electric cars.
But over-reliance on electric vehicles will wreak havoc on the environment and on vulnerable communities, according to a new report, because it would require a massive supply of lithium. The silvery white metal mined from rocks and groundwater is widely used in EV batteries. When extracted, it often has harsh social and environmental impacts, especially on Indigenous communities.
Instead of simply swapping traditional cars for EVs, the report released Tuesday by the climate justice-focused research network Climate and Community Project offers another way to tackle transportation’s climate impact: reducing dependency on cars in general.
“It’s not a question of, do we decarbonize, or do we protect Indigenous people and ecosystems?” said Thea Riofrancos, lead author, Climate and Community Project member, and associate professor of political science at Providence College. “It’s asking, how can we do both?”
The study’s authors created a novel modeling tool to examine different paths the United States can take to eliminate transit emissions, and how much lithium each would require.
The least ambitious scenario — just switching to EVs — could increase the need for lithium by up to threefold by 2050, the authors say. But if the country boosts density, invests in mass transit, builds out lithium battery recycling, and regulates EV battery size, it could cut the amount of extra lithium needed to decarbonize transit by 2050 by more than 90 percent.
The study is the first to project lithium demand based on transit policy choices. It raises questions surrounding EV policy in Massachusetts, where climate and transit advocates have expressed frustration with both state and federal climate plans for placing too much emphasis on electric cars.
Demand for lithium has soared in recent years, due mainly to a growing demand for EVs. Global lithium consumption has doubled over the past two years, according to Bloomberg, and is expected to rise over 40 times by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.
Though lithium is globally abundant, increasing production isn’t easy because new mines can’t be built overnight. Lithium mining has also notoriously led to widespread land and water pollution, habitat destruction, and human rights abuses in Indigenous and rural communities.
The study looks at ways to mitigate that impact by finding a way forward that requires less lithium.
“There are different ways that our transportation sector could look in 2050,” said Riofrancos. “They all eliminate emissions but otherwise, they’re radically different.”
In the “electrified status quo,” Riofrancos said, the United States makes only one change — swapping traditional cars for EVs — while maintaining the rest of the transportation system and allowing EV batteries to grow.
But a bolder future would see the nation build highly dense cities, hugely expand public transit and bike paths, build out battery recycling infrastructure, expand access to electric bikes, prioritize electric trains over buses because they use less lithium, and limit the size of passenger vehicles, reducing the amount of lithium needed for their batteries. This could lower the projected rise in lithium demand by 2050 by 92 percent, the study found.
The biggest share of that reduction in lithium demand comes not from battery recycling or reducing battery size, but from getting people out of cars. But crucially, even the most ambitious scenario does not eliminate cars altogether. “We wanted to stay within the bounds what could be actually doable in 2050,” said Riofrancos.
Slashing future lithium demand would help the United States decarbonize humanely, the study says, and would protect social welfare.
Globally, 85 percent of the current and planned lithium extraction projects are located on or near land managed or inhabited by Indigenous people, a December 2020 study found. In Chile and Argentina, two of the world’s largest lithium producers, mining has led to pollution, water depletion, and strong human rights and labor concerns, sparking staunch resistance from affected communities.
“Policies should avoid causing new harm to the environment and human rights of communities in the lithium rich areas in the Global South,” said Pía Marchegiani, environmental policy director at the nonprofit Environment and Natural Resources Foundation in Argentina, who coauthored the report.
Here in the United States, there is only one active lithium mine in Nevada, but dozens of new ones are under development. That includes the Thacker Pass mine, which was approved at the end of the Trump administration but is tied up in the courts, and which environmentalists and Indigenous tribes oppose due to concerns about ecological impact and a lack of community consultation.
The authors say low-lithium plans to decarbonize transit would come with other benefits, too. Improving public transit, for instance, could offer economic benefits to those who may struggle to afford cars, and could improve air quality. And regulating the size of EV batteries could make zero-emission vehicles more affordable for those who still need them.
Riofrancos noted that some New England municipalities are taking steps in the right direction. In Boston and in her own city of Providence, among others in the region, officials are experimenting with fare-free public transit to boost ridership and are building out bus lanes.
“We’re seeing some movement, but we’re also still seeing the expansion of car dependency with more parking lots and underfunded buses and the like,” she said. “But there’s a real opportunity.”