We May Not Actually Need All That Lithium

Lithium mining in Chile’s Atacama desert.
Lithium mining in Chile’s Atacama desert.

Read any article about the clean energy revolution, and chances are you’ll run into some staggering numbers about how demand for lithium, cobalt, nickel, and other minerals and metals is projected to rise over the next few decades.

But the future isn’t set in stone. The U.S. may need up to 90% less of these materials if it simply prioritizes things like public transit, urban walkability, and smaller cars, according to groundbreaking new research from the Climate and Community Project and University of California, Davis.

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The International Energy Agency predicts that demand for lithium could rise by as much as 40 times by 2040; the U.S. alone by 2050 could need three times as much lithium as is currently produced on the global market. Transportation and electric vehicle batteries are a huge factor in these staggering numbers.

But there are some big problems with these materials and their production, from environmentally destructive mining practices to child and forced labor in supply chains to geopolitical conflict. A recent analysis found that over half of the world’s supply of these materials is on Indigenous lands, signaling some significant upcoming conflicts with corporations looking to profit from the increased demand.

Lithium and other minerals are also likely to become big targets for Republicans and politicians opposed to EV tax credits and other clean energy incentives. On Wednesday, Senator Joe Manchin, who has voiced opposition to EV tax credits in the past, introduced a bill mandating that all materials in an EV battery eligible for a tax credit under the Inflation Reduction Act be mined either in the U.S. or in a country the U.S. has a free trade agreement with. Automakers say there’s a chance that, given all these requirements, no electric vehicle would actually be eligible for a tax credit.

But most of the forecasts that say we’re going to need huge amounts of materials like lithium are based on a future “that looks like the present except it’s electrified,” said Thea Riofrancos, an associate professor of political science at Providence College and one of the authors of the report. This one-to-one trade of gas vehicles for EVs—a vision that assumes Americans, especially, keep up with their big car obsession—is “easier, it feels more politically feasible, and it’s realistic” to the organizations doing the forecasting.

Riofrancos explained that industries that would stand to gain from a boom in electric vehicles—industries that are also producing their own forecasts—have a vested interest in seeing a car-heavy future.

“Auto companies and mining companies, the last companies on earth anyone would think of as being part of the climate solution, now have the opportunity to present themselves as climate saviors,” she said.

Riofrancos said the idea for this research was born from her own search for different modeling for a less car-heavy future. When she tried to find projections of pathways with different priorities in the U.S.—where there are fewer and smaller cars, denser and more easily navigable residential areas, and more public transit—she discovered they hadn’t yet been modeled in the context of demand for these minerals.

“Auto companies and mining companies... now have the opportunity to present themselves as climate saviors”

To do the modeling, Riofrancos and her research partners put together four scenarios for the U.S. to achieve net-zero emissions through 2050: a business-as-usual scenario, where electric vehicles simply replace the current supply of fossil fuel-dependent cars, and increasingly dramatic scenarios in which more people live in dense, walkable and bikeable areas; take improved public transit; and own fewer and smaller cars, while the government also implements aggressive recycling policies for electric car components. They then calculated the amount of lithium and other metals all these scenarios demand.

The results were surprising, even to Riofrancos. Policies that made cities more walkable and public transit better and more accessible could lower lithium demand between 18% and 66%, while simply limiting the size of EV batteries could cut demand by up to 42%. In the best-case scenario, where multiple types of these policies were implemented, demand for lithium in the U.S. could be more than 90% lower than current estimates.

The situations they lay out aren’t some sort of unrealistic utopian vision. Riofrancos stressed that even in their most aggressively low-car scenario, there are still electric vehicles on the road. “We were trying to keep this within the bounds of what could actually happen over the next 25 years,” she said. Limiting battery size, meanwhile, meant just limiting them to the types of cars popular in other developed nations. “The U.S. is going off on its own to be super big” when it comes to electric vehicles, Riofrancos said. (Ironically, the day before I spoke to Riofrancos, I had a conversation with a friend about the electric Hummer—which he was incredibly excited about, despite its absolutely gargantuan battery size.)

Ultimately, Riofrancos said, she hopes that the research at the very least shows that we have more options to get to net-zero carbon emissions than just over-reliance on EVs and the supply chain problems they bring.

“With just some federal or state level transit money, we could make a big difference in reducing the carbon emissions of transportation,” she said. “There are political challenges around getting Americans out of cars, but we should agree that the science says that that would help a lot to reduce emissions from transportation.”

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