Humanity may not will surely win the battle to prevent climate change, but the electrification of cars has started to look like a success story. Ten percent of new passenger cars sold worldwide last year were electric and powered by batteries, rather than gasoline, the production of which costs the world not only harmful carbon emissions but also environmental damage to frontline communities.
However, this revolution has its dirty side. If the goal is to electrify as quickly as possible everything we have now, including millions of new trucks and SUVs with a range similar to gas-powered models, demand for minerals used in batteries such as lithium , nickel and cobalt, will grow significantly. That means a lot more holes in the ground — nearly 400 new mines by 2035, according to one estimate by Benchmark Minerals — and a lot more pollution and environmental destruction to go along with them. That’s why a new study published today by researchers at the University of California, Davis, tries to chart another path where decarbonization can be achieved with less damage and possibly faster. It starts with fewer cars.
The analysis focuses on lithium, an element found in almost every battery design for electric vehicles. Metal is abundant on Earth, but mining is concentrated in a few places, such as Australia, Chile and China. And like other types of mining, lithium mining is a dirty business. Theo Riofrancos, a political scientist at Providence College who worked on the research project, knows what hundreds of new mines will look like on the ground. She saw how a falling water table near a lithium mine was affecting drought conditions in the Atacama Desert and how indigenous peoples were not benefiting from the mining, but harming it.
Riofrancos and his team looked at ways to sunset that run on gas-powered cars, but in a way that would replace them with fewer electric vehicles using smaller batteries. A future with millions of powerful long-range electronic SUVs is not the norm. Still, “the goal is not to say, ‘No new mining ever,'” says Alice Kendall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, who co-authored the study. Instead, she says, the researchers found that “we can do it better” if people become less dependent on cars to get around.
The team outlined five pathways for the US, each targeting different lithium demand scenarios. In the first, the world continues on the path it has set for itself: cars go electric, Americans maintain their love of big trucks and SUVs, and the number of cars per person remains the same. Few people use public transport because, frankly, most systems continue to fall behind.
Other scenarios simulate worlds with increasingly better public transport and walking and cycling infrastructure. In the greenest of them, changes in housing and land-use policies allow everything—homes, shops, jobs, schools—to become closer together, reducing commutes and other routine trips. Buses are being replaced by trains, and the proportion of people who own cars at all is falling sharply. In this world, fewer new electric cars were sold in 2050 than in 2021, and the ones that go out of production have smaller electric batteries made mostly from recycled materials, so each new one doesn’t require more mining to support it.