Analysis of this review underlines the conclusions of Libreville CBFP Mop 19th Stream 1a of Event: Emissions from the mining of minerals needed to manufacture EVs needs to be offset at source if they are to have a net positive impact on climate change. Many of the minerals are going to be coming from the Congo Basin.You may find this review of the potential climate impacts of the fast-growing market for Electric Vehicles (EVs) on the demand for minerals that are needed – particularly for the construction of their batteries...
An electric vehicle charges at a dealership in Wexford, Pa., May 6, 2021 (AP photo by Keith Srakocic)
Electric vehicles are poised to take over the global car market. In China, the world’s largest car market by far, sales of pure electric vehicles nearly doubled year-on-year in May; combined with hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, they more than doubled. Chinese electric vehicles now make up 20 percent of the domestic car market and 40 percent of the global electric vehicle market. At this rate, new car sales in China will be fully electric by 2025.
China dominates not just global demand, but also global supply of the critical components for electric vehicles. In 2020, 76 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries were produced there, along with 60 to 80 percent of the separators, anodes, electrolytes and cathodes in them. China also dominates the battery minerals supply chain, including lithium, nickel and rare earths. While its domestic deposits are not large, Chinese companies have invested heavily in overseas mines, such as for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have collectively built a large refining capacity at home. Chinese companies are responsible for 80 percent of global raw material refining for electric vehicle batteries, including 65 percent of global processing of battery-grade lithium.
In the United States, the world’s second-largest automotive market, electric vehicle sales have been slow and steady for a decade. But things are changing fast. In the first quarter of 2022, electric vehicle sales grew by a whopping 60 percent and now account for close to 6 percent of the total domestic passenger car market. Tesla remains the largest electric vehicle manufacturer, but all the big U.S. car companies have committed billions of dollars to rapidly expand electric vehicle production. GM says it will completely phase out gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Last week, California—the largest car market in the U.S.—announced a ban on sales of gas-powered cars after 2035.
Electric vehicle sales as well as domestic production in the U.S. will get a lift from the recently enacted Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, including a range of consumer and producer tax credits. In a bid to secure supplies and boost U.S. jobs and manufacturing, the IRA aims to build out a domestic electric vehicle supply chain, including mining and processing of critical materials.
There’s no question that the electric vehicle boom will help mitigate global climate change. But the environmental news isn’t all good.
The great environmental benefit of electric vehicles, no matter where they are produced or driven, is that they generate zero tailpipe emissions. That’s a huge plus, given that transportation accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and about 8 percent in China. In the car-crazy U.S., tailpipe emissions are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 27 percent of the U.S. total. There’s no question, then, that the electric vehicle boom will help mitigate global climate change and improve local air quality to boot.
But the environmental news isn’t all good.
Electric vehicles do generate emissions both when they are recharged and when they are produced. How much depends largely on the local energy mix. If the local grid is powered by coal, oil or natural gas, the climate benefits of eliminating tailpipe emissions shrink. A recent study in Australia found that in the state of Tasmania, which is largely powered by hydro, an electric vehicle reduces transport emissions by 70-77 percent. But the average reduction nationally was a more modest 29-41 percent. Nonetheless, a 2022 study by the research group RMI found that even in U.S. regions with “dirty” grids, the tailpipe-plus-charging emissions of electric vehicles are still lower than gasoline-powered cars.
But the production of electric vehicles, especially their batteries, is a highly energy-intensive business. A single lithium-ion battery pack for a mid-sized electric vehicle weighs 1,000 pounds and contains some 17 pounds of lithium, 77 pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese and 30 pounds of cobalt. To keep it lightweight, the battery case is made of aluminum, one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world. Nearly half of the emissions from manufacturing electric vehicles come from the mining and processing of the critical materials for the battery. The location of the mines matters here, too: The lower the ore quality, the more energy it takes to dig it out and process it.
Based on modeling by the Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that with today’s U.S. energy mix, manufacturing an electric vehicle generates 50 percent more emissions than a gasoline-powered car. In China, where coal-generated power makes up 60 percent of the energy grid, the emissions from manufacturing electric vehicles are even higher. In the U.S., electric vehicles are still much cleaner over the whole life cycle of a vehicle—production, use and retirement—compared to gasoline-powered cars, which generate twice as many emissions as electric vehicles. Given the expected huge growth in the electric vehicle market, it’s clear that the national energy sectors must decarbonize in lockstep with sales.
In April 2022, President Joe Biden committed the U.S. to achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035. The IRA allocates $370 billion to reaching that goal. California has set 2045 as its target for the same goal and is well on its way. China announced in June that 33 percent of its energy would come from renewables by 2035. However, it is still adding coal plants, some of which will power the country’s planned expansion of electric vehicle battery production.
An even more daunting environmental challenge of the electric vehicle boom is that the methods used to obtain critical materials—generally open-pit or underground mining—generate widespread, toxic and long-lasting in situ environmental damage. In open-pit mining, thousands of acres of dirt “overburden” are removed and put in mountainous piles of waste rocks. The exposed ore seams are then dug up and transported in slurries to undergo complex processes to separate out the metal. Residues, called tailings, are typically held in large ponds.
The land, soil and biodiversity lost to an open-pit mine—which can be as much as 3-4 miles long and a mile wide—can be irreversible, including the loss of species. Moreover, the mountains of overburden as well as the tailings contain traces of heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, copper and mercury. When rainwater comes into contact with the rocks, it reacts with sulfur to create acidic run-off that dissolves the heavy metals and pollutes surface and groundwater. “Acid mine drainage” can pollute entire watersheds and coastal waters that surround the mine for hundreds of miles—and for generations.
Stories of the long-term, devastating environmental and social impacts of metals mining, as well as the resistance to it, abound in every major mining community around the world, from Argentina to Arizona, from Papua New Guinea to Paiute country, from Chile to China. Typically, the mines are located near poor rural communities, many near or on Indigenous lands. Last week, “From Dreams to Dust”—which documents the ravaging of Tapunggaeya, a once-quiet Indonesian fishing community, by decades of nickel mining—won the 2022 Yale Environment 360 Film Contest. The huge open-pit mines have polluted the community’s drinking supplies, triggered landslides and contaminated coastal waters. The consultancy EY found that social and environmental concerns were the top risks to the mining and metals sector in 2021.
Like nickel, lithium is a metal, and mining it is dirty business. In addition to huge open-pit mines, lithium is extracted by pumping underground water deposits to the surface. The resulting pools of briny liquid are left to evaporate, and lithium is removed from the dried salts that remain. The process typically consumes huge quantities of fresh water, often sourced from wells, streams or aquifers that are also used for farming or drinking water.
Are there alternatives to such dirty mining of the metals, like nickel and lithium, that are necessary for clean electric vehicles? The jury is still out, but there are four main angles of approach:
Recycling. Only about 1 percent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, compared to 99 percent of lead batteries. But technological innovation and commercial opportunity could drive a big increase as the electric vehicle market explodes.
Regulation. Like the stringent measures put in place to reduce air pollution from coal, strong regulation to protect water and biodiversity will be required for the electric vehicle revolution.
New mining processes. Better ways to mine lithium are emerging, including direct extraction, which uses little water.
Find out more...