First of its kind research shows how the US can lower lithium demand in transportation by 90 percent in the next 3 decades: decreasing car dependency, right-sizing electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and creating a robust recycling system.
Thea Riofrancos, firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 646-258-1539
Johanna Bozuwa, email@example.com, +1 603-667-0914
January 24, 2023 – The Climate and Community Project released its latest report, “Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining.” This unprecedented modeling research finds that reducing car dependency and size in the United States can significantly lower demand for lithium, help manage the current rush for minerals in the energy transition, reduce harm to frontline communities and ecosystems, and prevent violent resource conflicts.
This report comes at a crucial moment for conversations around global climate justice and supply chains for the electrification of the US personal transportation system. The IEA recently predicted a lithium demand to rise over 40 times by 2040– outpacing demand for other “critical minerals” and raising concern for the socio-environmental impacts of mining and increasingly tense geopolitics around supply. Grassroots protest against new mines is also on the rise.
Meanwhile, US policies are sending mixed messages for the future of the transportation system. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act doubled down funding for an EV-centric approach. In contrast, President Biden’s recently-unveiled strategy to fully decarbonize the transportation sector by 2050 puts a much heavier focus on transit and land-use planning.
“The energy transition is a critical juncture: will we electrify the status quo, or take the opportunity for ambitious policies that simultaneously slash emissions, reduce pressure on ecosystems, and improve community wellbeing?” says Dr. Thea Riofrancos, Associate Professor of Political Science at Providence College, Climate and Community Project member, and lead author of the report. “Our report shows that despite alarming headlines, there is no zero-sum tradeoff between zero emissions transportation and protecting biodiversity and Indigenous rights. Reducing car dependency means reducing mining while improving mobility for all.”
Using a novel material flow analysis paired with socioeconomic pathway modeling, this report determines possible scenarios for the decarbonization of personal transportation in the United States. Results demonstrate that increasing metropolitan area density and investing in mass transit, even while holding battery size constant, will reduce cumulative demand for lithium anywhere from 18 to 66 percent. Compared to the most lithium intensive scenarios– in which EV battery size grows and US car dependency remains stable– this modeling reveals the most ambitious policies, including best case recycling, could reduce lithium demand by up to 90 percent in 2050. Ultimately, the report shows it is possible to have more mobility and less mining while making rapid progress to zero emissions.
“The transition from gasoline to EV is a step forward in lowering our carbon footprint and we can make it a leap forward if we address the associated environmental and human burdens that are shifting from oil fields and tailpipes to lithium mines and new frontline communities,” says Dr. Alissa Kendall, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of California-Davis and author of the report, “Our research shows three key strategies can reduce US lithium demand by 90 percent in the next 3 decades relative to the most lithium-intensive scenario: decreasing car dependency, right-sizing EV batteries, and creating a robust recycling system.”
The advantages of reducing the lithium-intensity of zero emissions transportation are myriad. As the cost of EV batteries rises, smaller batteries would make decarbonized transportation more affordable. Investing in mass transit systems throughout the country instead of individual car ownership would provide community benefits ranging from improved access to transit, more pedestrian safety, and better air quality.
At the other end of the supply chain, “critical minerals” are fast becoming geopolitical flash-points and chokepoints of supply chain vulnerability. The mining sector is also notorious for driving environmental destruction and violating Indigenous rights. The report describes what is at stake for communities on the frontlines of lithium mining in the US Southwest, Portugal, Chile, and Argentina.
“Policies should avoid causing new harm to the environment and human rights of communities in the lithium rich areas in the Global South,” says Pía Marchegiani, Environmental Policy Director at Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales in Argentina, “The report brings into light that there are options and possibilities for a future without fossil fuels that minimizes mineral extraction and material use."
Climate, transportation, and Indigenous justice can be aligned through an ambitious rethinking of the energy transition that emphasizes benefits for communities and ecosystems most impacted by the climate crisis.
The Climate and Community Project is a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. www.climateandcommunity.org