Watch an interview with Chris Fischer, project superintendent at RGB, a California-based construction firm known for its climate-conscious actions.
In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled an executive order that represented California’s most ambitious move in its crusade to combat climate change. By the year 2035, all passenger vehicles (cars and trucks) must be zero emission to be sold in California. What does this mean for the environment? The monumental shift from gas-powered cars to rare earth materials-based batteries represents a unique opportunity to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Tailpipe emissions have been the cause of poor air quality in urban centers, and it is an indisputable fact that man-made pollution has been the single driving factor for quickly accelerating climate change.
However, it would be short-sighted to limit our analysis of electric vehicles to the local impacts on air quality and reductions in greenhouse gasses in the United States. Climate change is a global problem and should be viewed through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis. What this means is that we must look at all of the implications of a certain policy and contrast it with the entirety of its detriments.
First, let’s begin with a general analysis. This two-prong initiative (the executive order and legislation introduced) would reduce tailpipe emissions on a local basis and would more than likely reduce smog and improve air quality. Simple logic dictates that if a majority of cars in an urban or suburban setting don’t have a tailpipe, then there simply is no possibility for carbon emissions to be released.
Similar to how most disapproval of conventional cars centers around the usage of fossil fuels, the criticism of electric vehicles will similarly be centered around its power source: batteries. There are serious environmental impacts in the mining, manufacturing, and disposal of these batteries. Keep in mind that a state like California, which has the highest amount of vehicle registrations at 14.2 million, serves as a microcosm of what environmental policy could look like when translated on a federal or even global scale.
An article written by MIT’s climate portal finds that 15 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted into the air for every ton of lithium mined. The authors also found that mining these raw materials can leave long-term contaminants like toxic chemicals behind in local communities. This assertion is supported by a 2020 report released by the Institute for Energy Research which cited numerous examples from Australia, South America, Asia, and North America in which wildlife were harmed in the vicinity (up to 100 miles in some cases) of lithium mines. The MIT panel also stated that lithium mining requires enormous amounts of water, and the same IER report sets that number at 500,000 gallons per ton mined. It is estimated that between 2021 and 2030, about 12.85 million tons of EV lithium ion batteries will go offline worldwide, and over 10 million tons of lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese will be mined for new batteries.
We must also consider the environmental impacts that manufacturing the batteries for commercial use has. Manufacturing lithium ion batteries has a CED, or cumulative energy demand, three times as high as a conventional car battery. About 40 percent of the climate impact from the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining and processing of the minerals needed. Mining and refining of battery materials, and manufacturing of the cells, modules, and battery packs require significant amounts of energy which generate greenhouse gas emissions.
Lastly, recycling these batteries is problematic with the technology that is currently available. Recycling of lithium-ion batteries is being pushed by governments due to the environmental waste issues associated with them and the growing demand for batteries as more and more electric vehicles are sold. Only about 5 percent of the world’s lithium batteries are recycled, compared to 99 percent of lead car batteries recycled in the United States. Recycling lithium batteries, however, can be hazardous. Cutting too deep into a cell or in the wrong place can result in it short-circuiting, combusting, and releasing toxic fumes. Because batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction, it’s difficult to create efficient recycling systems.
California’s ambitious move to electric forms of transport by 2035 has its benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions, but a more efficient system to create and recycle batteries is needed in order to ensure a smooth transition to carbon net zero.