The wheel may have been influenced by nature, but today, the inverse is true. The anthropogenic automobile stimulates climate change and the environmental ravages correlated with a heating planet. Twenty-eight percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from transportation – more than any other economic sector. As the climate crisis spirals out of control, the most sustainable modes of moving around require our attention, and our investment. In part, we need better ‘wheels.’
Electric cars, or EVs, while not the all-out cure for atmospheric ills, are a preferred substitute to autos powered by internal combustion. Quiet and clean, they lack tailpipes and tailpipe pollutants, but have abundant pep. Think instant acceleration. And EVs put the ‘E’ in efficiency. For example, the 2020 Kia e-Niro is EPA-rated at 112 miles per gallon equivalent or MPGe; the Chevy Bolt, 119. Other models are likewise impressive.
Misperceptions remain. So-called “range anxiety” is worrying about being unable to get to a destination or return home — that batteries will be depleted and leave the driver stranded. With an expanding nationwide charging network, such stress is unfounded. Companies like EVgo and ChargePoint offer apps that point to charging stations at convenience stores and retailers near and far. Tesla maintains their own extensive system of chargers. It won’t be long until electrons are as accessible as gasoline.
“Filling” an EV is quick and easy. Rapid charging devices can restore up to 80% of vehicle range in 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the make and model of the car. By the time one grabs a meal or coffee, the vehicle is ready to roll. Prefer to charge at home, in between trips? Residential chargers can do the job in roughly nine hours, with installation of a 220-volt AC household unit.
Meanwhile, battery range grows. The Hyundai Kona travels 258 miles between plug-ins; a Tesla Model 3 (long-range version), 322 miles. Almost any destination is possible.
By almost every environmental measure, electric vehicles surpass their fossil-fueled cousins, but the need for lithium – a primary ingredient in EV batteries – brings a variety of challenges.
Bloomberg reports that approximately 27 million passenger electric vehicles were in use globally in 2019. By 2040, the number could leap to 500 million. Is there enough lithium to support such growth?
Projections from S&P Global suggest the worldwide supply of lithium could triple by 2025, with new mines, brine extraction, and anticipated output from “existing projects.” Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium, but as new sources have been identified, the country now ranks fifth in known reserves, behind Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and the US, respectively. China rounds out the list of the top six suppliers.
Innovation, efficiency, and new finds may extend the era of lithium-powered EVs, but fears of someday reaching “Peak Lithium” isn’t far-fetched, although lessons from the prediction of “Peak Oil” impart caution to forecasting.
And it’s not only a question of whether it can be obtained technologically, but can it be done sustainably and equitably? Mining today requires a commitment to environmental justice. Much of the known lithium deposits are in low and middle-income countries, which, for centuries, have been treated as sacrifice zones for the material desires of highly industrialized nations. Research commissioned by Earthworks points to EV batteries as the most significant driver of accelerated minerals demand, but notes that recycled sources can significantly reduce demand. Not all demand will likely be fulfilled through recycling, so responsible sourcing is critical.
Addressing the profound human and environmental dimensions of mineral demand – for batteries and other aspects of the renewable energy transition – the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) was established in 2006 and aspires to “certify social and environmental performance at mine sites globally using an internationally recognized standard . . . developed in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders.”
Such programs provide transparency and accountability, but non-governmental organizations, governments, manufacturers, and product customers using these materials must remain vigilant, informed, and outspoken. Society collectively must assure that exploitation is relegated to history. Communities in the fairway of mining must be vested partners; benefactors, not victims.
But accessing minerals, no matter how well-intentioned, is a messy enterprise. The lithium conundrum underscores the need to look beyond the convenience of automobiles, to a future oriented around energy efficiency, mass transit, and welcoming places that thrive at a human – and a more humane – scale, where walking and biking is the norm. Examples abound, but in the United States, in particular, neighborhood reinvestment infused with inclusive and creative ideas may propel us to greener days. Even better, it might instigate a new and profound harmony amongst people, and the generous nature that surrounds them.
EVs are a bridge to span decades, not the trail to tomorrow. But the bridge has to be reachable. A federal tax credit of up to $7500 may be available, depending on how many units of that model have sold. Some states also offer rebate and credit incentives as EVs become more common, they will likely become more affordable, at least rivaling gasoline and diesel counterparts.
The wave is coming. In January, General Motors announced its vision “. . . of an all-electric future . . . offering zero-emissions vehicles across a range of price points.” The company’s plan also focuses on charging infrastructure, consumer acceptance, and an emphasis on high-quality jobs. The Biden Administration is also championing EVs, promising 500,000 charging stations across America and electrification of the entire federal vehicle fleet.
If climate change is deflating – if not roughening – our human journeys, electric vehicles can serve as the temporary spare to get us where we need to be. The ride will be better, not perfect. . . a helpful cog in climate healing.
By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, FracTracker Alliance