A smarter transition to electric vehicles

We got some big news from California this week: Officials there set into motion a plan that’ll ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. The decision is expected to accelerate the global transition to electric vehicles.

That’s because California is the largest auto market in the United States, and more than a dozen other states typically follow its lead when setting their own auto emissions standards.

That’s good news for the climate. But what about the environmental footprint of all those electric vehicles? While E.V.s are definitely better than cars that run on fossil fuels, they do have their own problems.

Today, I’ll take a look at those issues by focusing on a crucial part of the batteries that power electric cars: lithium. It’s a soft, white metal and, because of its physical and chemical properties, lithium is very good at storing energy.

Demand for the stuff, sometimes called “white petroleum,” is expected to grow more sharply than demand for any of the other key metals needed for car batteries. The International Energy Agency, for instance, has projected that demand will grow over 40 times by 2040 if the countries of the world stick to their Paris Agreement targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Where lithium comes from

Today, most lithium comes from one of two sources: rocks and brine. The extraction methods are quite different.

The first method generally involves digging for an ore called spodumene that contains high levels of lithium. Australia, the world’s largest single produce of lithium, relies mainly on this technique.

Spodumene is mined much like gold or iron ore, in open pits. And it has many of the same problems. There are big risks to the environment, both from digging up the land and from the processes used to extract the ore. Mines in Tasmania, for example, have been leaking contaminated water for the past five years, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

That kind of pollution is a big concern for Indigenous Americans. According to research from MSCI, an investment research firm based in New York, 79 percent of extractable lithium in the United States is found within 35 miles of Native reservations.

In the other method, brine is mixed with freshwater and left to sit in ponds for up to 18 months. The water eventually evaporates and leaves behind minerals. Then, with a bit more processing, you can extract lithium for use in batteries. My colleague Somini Sengupta described the process and the scene in an article from the Atacama Desert in Chile. Check it out. The photos are stunning.

As Somini pointed out, the Atacama is great for lithium production in one sense: It has the highest solar radiation levels on Earth, so water evaporates astonishingly fast. But it’s also one of the driest places on Earth, and the brine method relies heavily on water. So the industry makes the region even more susceptible to drought. The same is true of many other places, like Argentina and Bolivia, where lithium is extracted from brine.

How to mitigate impacts

Responsible extraction involves investigating local biodiversity, water flows and the concerns of local communities to figure out how to reduce harm, said Aimee Boulanger, executive director of the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, a group that certifies mines for big companies.

But that can be expensive and can cut into profits. So most companies do just what the law requires. And laws, Boulanger said, are often not strict enough to really protect the environment.

“It doesn’t take a lot of new technology,” she told me. Rather, it just requires producers to invest in responsible practices.

Cleaner technologies are now being tested by universities and start-ups. Many involve what’s known as direct extraction, which means pulling lithium straight from brine rather than evaporating water and using chemicals to remove impurities. For now, that process is not commercially viable.

Chong Liu, a scientist who researches lithium extraction technologies at the University of Chicago, told me a lot of the world’s lithium is actually inaccessible without developing more efficient methods to extract it.

Using current methods, we can only access “maybe a quarter” of the world’s known reserves, she said.

The way we get lithium, and the other inputs for electric vehicles, will play a big role in determining whether the planet ends up with a new, different set of environmental problems in the not-too-distant future.

Boulanger, from the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, told me she quite often hears the argument that the urgency of the climate crisis means the world doesn’t have time to extract these metals in a meticulous way.

“Maybe we would not live in the climate-stressed world we live in right now if we had looked at the impacts of sourcing oil and gas,” she said. “We don’t have time to make more messes as we try to solve this problem.”

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