There Won't Be More Electric Vehicles Without More Mining

Here's how to make both work for the environment—and society.

There Won't Be More Electric Vehicles Without More Mining
Lithium mine at Salinas Grandes salt desert Jujuy province, Argentina

In the future, how many electric cars will roll down our roads? This is an unanswerable question, and not just because the future is hard to predict but also because any prediction is dependent on an answer to a separate question: How many electric cars should we want on our roads in the first place?

As the recent “More Mobility and Less Mining” report, authored by Providence College Professor Thea Riofrancos and fellow scholars at UC Davis, points out, the automobile is intertwined with the climate, health, and social outcomes. While EVs may eliminate tailpipe emissions, they nevertheless interact with urban design, pedestrian safety, and the socioeconomics of mobility in ways that aren’t necessarily beneficial. The report focuses in particular on the upstream mining required to produce a vehicle, the harms that mining inflicts upon local people and the environment, and the ongoing push to increase mining globally for EV minerals.

To start their calculations, Riofrancos and her co-authors estimated future demand for mined lithium with various scenarios for the U.S. transportation system. They calculate that up to 66% of total 2020-2050 lithium demand for U.S. passenger cars could be eliminated by reducing car ownership, improving battery recycling, and shifting to smaller EV batteries. The report articulates a coherent mechanism for change: reduce mining needs by lowering car dependence in wealthy countries and mobilize local and international stakeholders to hold the mining sector accountable for environmental and social harms in lithium mining regions, including Latin America, Portugal, and the American West.

Such recommendations are crucial, and this report adds important context and data to conversations about electric vehicles that have often remained far too conceptual. Yet the study’s findings on the potential extent of lithium savings rely on aggressive assumptions. Upper-bound reductions in future lithium demand require national urban transformation that shifts a full 30-50% of the American population from low-density suburban to medium-density environments within 30 years, while also cutting the size of the prevailing EV battery by half.

The “More Mobility and Less Mining” report thus warrants some pushback on two points. First, by overestimating the near-term rate at which transportation and urban systems can transform, the researchers underestimate near-term lithium demand. In other words, demand-reduction measures that may take a decade or more to manifest will not alleviate supply-side shortages in the 2020s. Second, the report’s condemnation of mining as an inherently socially harmful sector may build intolerance toward EV mineral production rather than promote improved accountability, potentially exacerbating bottlenecks and increasing the cost and time required for global EV adoption.

Rather, the key challenge for the climate community is to affirmatively articulate a socially positive vision for mineral extraction. As the report itself argues: “The volume of extraction is not a given. Neither is where mining takes place, who bears the social and environmental burdens, or how mining is governed.” And so it is time to answer the question of how to govern mining well—by requiring prior and informed consent, mandating fair sharing of economic benefits, and standardizing environmental and labor protections globally, and more.

With the urgency of climate action in mind, environmentalists and the clean tech industry must demand a better framework for mineral production that meets the scale and speed of decarbonization efforts while resolutely protecting communities, workers, and the environment. With no way to move beyond gasoline powered cars without an increase in lithium production, we must pursue policies, techniques, and social dynamics that can equitably decouple the valuable aspects of resource production from its negative impacts.

What “More Mobility and Less Mining” gets wrong.

Barring an unanticipated new revolution in battery chemistry, “More Mobility and Less Mining’s” wide range of scenarios—from the car-addicted status quo to a sweeping sea change in America’s urban and transportation landscape—likely contains the true amount of lithium that U.S. light-duty vehicles will consume from 2020-2050.

What is likely not realistic is the report’s upper-bound estimates for reductions in lithium demand.

The report’s authors investigated the effects of changes in urban density, vehicle ownership, EV battery size, and end-of-life EV recycling rates on the amount of lithium needed to support the U.S. electric vehicle fleet over the 2020-2050 period. The study finds that a combination of a highly ambitious migration of the U.S. population to medium-density communities, a shift to smaller EV batteries, aggressive battery recycling measures, and policy efforts to improve mass transit and incentivize biking and walking could reduce cumulative 2020-2050 lithium demand in U.S. light-duty vehicles by up to 66%, and 2050 annual lithium demand by up to 92% relative to a status-quo scenario.

It is hard to understate the sheer scale of these changes. Take urbanization.

U.S. population by urbanization level and urban density class, for the present-day (assumed unchanging to 2050 in Scenarios 1 and 2) and for the year 2050 in the more ambitious Scenarios 3 and Scenario 4, from the More Mobility and Less Mining report.

According to the report, 19% of the U.S. population currently lives in rural areas, 62% of the population lives in low-density urban areas (<15 persons per hectare), and 19% of Americans live in medium-density urban areas (>15 persons per hectare). By 2050, the two most ambitious scenarios have transitioned the medium-density population to 50-75% of all Americans, with the low-density urban category falling to 31-10% of the population. The study does not state which future projection of U.S. population growth it used, but compared to the current U.S. population, this suggests changes in living patterns for at least 100-166 million Americans.

This would represent one of the most dramatic human geography shifts in modern American history, in percentage terms a transformation roughly on the scale of Chinese urbanization in recent decades, which saw the share of citizens living in cities increase from 19% in 1980 to 63% in 2021. To be clear, the “More Mobility and Less Mining” report merely envisions a shift from low-density to medium-density living—that is, moving from suburban sprawl to denser communities—as opposed to vast rural migration to cities. But coarsely, these scenarios still envision sweeping changes to how hundreds of millions of Americans live and work within just three decades.

On top of this, the analysis assumes fairly significant displacement of personal vehicle trips by cycling, biking, and public transit. The authors’ targets, while challenging, are appropriately data-driven and based on patterns from real-world peer cities outside the United States. But the most ambitious Scenario 4 still assumes that all American urban areas with a population density of more than 15 persons per hectare—something like a wealthy Connecticut suburb with detached homes on half-acre plots—can achieve patterns of transportation behavior consistent with aspirational future targets currently set by cities like Vienna, Austria. A highest-ambition scenario ought to be truly transformational in scope, perhaps. But given the dramatically different geography and historical evolution of U.S. urban areas, targets made for Vienna may not be feasible.

In their most ambitious scenarios, moreover, the authors implement aggressive instantaneous shifts in EV battery size. In one set of scenarios, average EV battery capacity shrinks immediately after 2020 to 54 kWh (the current average is 70kWh)—a reduction driven primarily by a shift to 35 kWh batteries for new EVs. Assuming a Tesla Model 3’s road efficiency of 150 Wh/km, the use of a 54 kWh battery would represent a reduction in range from 319 miles to an average of 224 miles. EVs with a 35 kWh battery would be limited to a range of just 145 miles. Note that within the weight range of passenger cars, reduced weight from a smaller battery does not convey increased mileage to a sufficient degree to offset the loss in battery capacity.

This envisioned reduction in EV battery capacity runs counter to the preferences of car owners in practice. People purchase vehicles that can accommodate the occasional longer trip, not just their daily or weekly routines. A vehicle’s battery capacity must also offer some margin of safety to account for driving in adverse weather and to locate charging stations. Furthermore, smaller batteries increase the likelihood of having to recharge en-route as opposed to at home, imposing costs on an owner’s time and increasing charging infrastructure needs.

At any rate, given demonstrated consumer preferences among the EV models on the market, the methodological choice to immediately execute battery size shifts certainly overestimates near-term potential to reduce lithium demand.

Similarly, recycling rates in the high-recycling scenarios shift instantaneously after 2020 to 100% end-of-life battery collection and 98% recovery of lithium material. As it turns out, however, this instantaneous switch does not significantly affect the modeling results for lithium demand. Compared to the report’s more realistic high-recycling scenario where collection and recycling rates increase linearly to 100% and 98% by 2030, the cumulative difference in avoided new lithium demand is only 10,000–20,000 tons, by my calculations. This is because there just aren’t that many electric vehicle batteries available in the near-term for recycling.

The target recycling rate of 98% is high, considering that more well-established end-of-life recycling of aluminum and copper is still only about 80% and 60% respectively. However, recycled lithium would be valuable, strengthening economic incentives to achieve high recycling rates. Indeed, ambitious efforts to recycle EV batteries at high rates are a common sense measure for limiting new lithium extraction, and deserve high prioritization by researchers and policymakers.

Finally, the study’s methodology assumes steady rates of improvement from the current status quo to its highly-ambitious target transit and urbanization patterns of 2050. As any American frustrated by the slow and stop-start pace of high-speed rail, public housing, protected bike lanes, and other public infrastructure can attest to, it seems inconceivable that vast national transformation of U.S. cities and transportation systems could hit the ground running. If the prerequisites for convincing a Portland resident to go car-free include a sweeping expansion of Portlands’s bus and light-rail system and a regional high-speed rail network with service spanning Seattle to San Francisco, then one would not expect a reduction of vehicle ownership to occur until such systems are in place. Even with revolutions in zoning and infrastructure project management, alternative transit networks could take a decade and beyond to complete.

A more realistic implementation curve, with slower changes from the status quo during the 2020s followed by more accelerated shifts thereafter, would necessarily produce higher estimates of near-term lithium demand for EVs. As such, the modeling assumption of a steady progression in urbanization, transit mode shares, and vehicle requirements from 2020 to 2050 certainly overstates the potential of even the most ambitious policies to reduce near-term EV lithium demand this decade.

Although the report’s upper bound estimates are infeasibly high, the authors’ intellectual contributions to ongoing conversations around lithium mining warrant serious discussion. Indeed, debates within the climate movement are far more productive when participants use quantitative approaches to explore the impacts of different policy preferences. Taking the Medium Battery Capacity case and imagining an approach between the low-ambition and medium-ambition scenarios, this study’s findings would still suggest a realistic potential to reduce cumulative 2020-2050 lithium demand in U.S. light-duty vehicles by perhaps 20-40%. And that is a heartening finding that demonstrates the importance of redoubled efforts to deploy more public transit, incentivize active transit, and build more dense, convenient urban environments.

How much lithium will the United States need to mine for future EVs?

But looking at the big picture, it seems clear that reducing car dependence will go only so far in limiting future societal lithium requirements. This study’s scope does not consider potentially considerable lithium demand from electric heavy-duty trucks, off-road utility vehicles like forklifts and farm tractors, some home and grid-scale battery storage systems, and other sectors such as consumer drones. Batteries have even been proposed for the decarbonization of some sea ferries, regional maritime shipping, and short-distance aviation. Outside of the United States, it may be even more difficult to blunt increasing demand for lithium. Train, bike, and transit-friendlier countries in Europe and East Asia have, effectively, already implemented many of the report’s proposed policy measures, while developing countries will add more cars to roads globally even if they prioritize good urban and transportation planning from the start.

Taken together, these trends seem to support estimates that lithium production may need to increase several-fold by 2035. Let us assume that with heroic car ownership reduction efforts, the world in 2050 maintains the global number of passenger vehicles at exactly today’s level of around 1.3 billion vehicles while leveraging technological advances and recycling to cut new lithium demand per vehicle in half from 0.1 kg of lithium per kWh of battery capacity to 0.05 kg/kWh. At a modest battery capacity of 55 kWh/vehicle, this represents a stock of 3,575,000 metric tons of new lithium metal—over 35 years’ worth of current global annual production. It is reasonable to add some margin of error in case transportation policies, battery innovation, or recycling measures fail to deliver to the desired extent. Then, additionally factoring in other demand drivers for lithium from semi trucks, buses, grid batteries, and more, it seems reasonable that the world could require 8-10 million metric tons of lithium between 2020-2050, or 80-100 years’ worth of current world production.

For instance, the “More Mobility and Less Mining” report separately estimates a cumulative requirement of 23,000 tons of lithium metal for U.S. electric transit and school buses from 2020-2050. Coarsely scaling this quantity from the future U.S. population by 2050 (a high value of 458 million people) to a 2050 global population of 10 billion could put 2020-2050 lithium demand from buses alone at 500,000 tons or more.

Given that the authors of the “More Mobility and Less Mining” report principally seek to question the ongoing wave of interest in lithium extraction to meet near-term demand, the infeasibility of its most ambitious scenarios matters a great deal. This challenges the authors’ contention that supply chain bottlenecks in lithium production can be primarily addressed with demand-reduction measures, especially in the coming years.

To be sure, the potential harms from an unchecked, irresponsible lithium mining rush could be considerable. And so too are the potential harms from climate change that our existing gasoline-based vehicles contribute to, coupled with ongoing environmental impacts today from fossil fuel extraction and air pollution. If demand-reduction measures alone cannot alleviate a lithium supply bottleneck, then all forms of electric transportation may remain more expensive until commodity constraints ease. This risks perpetuating the existing emissions-intensive status quo.

Absent a magic-wand, it will take at least a decade or longer for demand-reduction measures like transit infrastructure and urban densification to begin taking societal effect, assuming favorable politics that would permit such changes nation-wide in the first place. Therefore change must also happen on the supply side, to produce the minerals for the low-carbon energy transition at scale in just, environmentally responsible ways.

How to make lithium mining more just—and more environmentally friendly.

To make mining work for society and the environment, there is much work to do. All mining, terrestrial or marine, inherently produces environmental harm. (So too, frankly, is the battery recycling sector, whose chemical and heat-intensive processes could carry their own risks of air pollution, water pollution, and high water consumption. Everything in modern society carries environmental tradeoffs.) Yet the magnitude of those environmental impacts is not a given, and both the mining sector and regulators have a continual responsibility to use technology and best practices to increasingly minimize impacts over time.

Far more inexcusable are human rights violations associated with mineral production. Activists opposing local mining projects worldwide often face mortal dangers—coercion, violence, and murder. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, miners currently work under unsafe, abusive, and even involuntary forced labor conditions. And throughout history, workers and communities have often received an unfairly small share of the economic benefits associated with the mining activities they perform and host.

Yet the worst injustices of the past and present mining industry are hardly inherent to the physical act of extracting minerals from the earth. The difficult challenge is to imagine what progressive mining that can achieve a just balance between responsibility and scale would look like. If we are willing to pin some of our hopes upon the technological solutionism of near-perfect lithium-ion battery collection and recycling that does not yet exist, then we ought to consider the possibility that we can also mine minerals better.

Efforts to mobilize opposition to new mining for low-carbon energy technologies must acknowledge that the fossil-fueled status quo is far, far more extractive and that a blanket disdain for all mining may lock us into a more unjust future. Another threat is that opposition to mining in relatively more open, democratic societies in North America, Europe, and Latin America may merely lead metal, automobile, and battery industries to deepen their linkages to Central Africa, Xinjiang, or Tibet, where communities and civil society are more powerless to oppose environmental and social abuses.

But none of that obviates the general need to improve how society mines minerals. While some international mining industry standards exist today, these could evolve into a framework that is virtually mandatory in practice, which includes key environmental, social, and labor protections. Whether through a third-party association of industries and NGOs or through international organizations, certification of social responsibility could require mining companies to secure prior and informed consent with independent verification, accept regular monitoring and reporting of environmental performance, commit to full reclamation of mined areas post-operations, protect cultural heritage, and negotiate community benefits agreements that invest in and share economic gains with hosting communities. Responsible mining protocols could even encourage and incentivize local community or Tribal co-ownership of mining projects.

Numerous technical improvements can reduce environmental impacts from mining, from better tailings management and process water treatment to concurrent ecological restoration of already-mined portions of a project while mining continues elsewhere at the site. International policy requirements could include standardized environmental review, adherence to international best practices, and royalty fees to host governments to support cleanup liability in the event of mine abandonment. Such a framework could also strengthen labor—protecting union organization rights, establishing complaint and report mechanisms, and specifying strict safety standards. When it comes to lithium specifically, imminent efforts to commercially deploy Direct Lithium Extraction techniques that use closed-loop alternatives to traditional lithium production from open ponds could dramatically improve the environmental footprint of lithium extraction within just the next few years.

If materials for the transition to low-carbon technology are truly so valuable, then surely policymakers and civil society can create systems that equitably distribute that value. And if mines cannot profitably provide needed minerals for decarbonization at a price that enables ambitious climate policies to proceed, once many or all of these steps are implemented, then perhaps the public sector should ensure that the mines run nonetheless.

The volume of extraction to support wide adoption of EVs and rooftop solar is not yet determined but will likely be large, perhaps even under highly ambitious scenarios for reducing future material demand. With this in mind, it is high time for policymakers, industry, and civil society globally to grapple directly with the challenge of how to mine at scale well.