Thursday, January 26, 2023

Protecting the Planet and its People

 The US’s transition to electric vehicles could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market, causing needless water shortages, Indigenous land grabs, and ecosystem destruction inside and outside its borders, new research by the Climate and Community Project and the University of California finds.

It warns that unless the US’s dependence on cars in towns and cities falls drastically, the transition to lithium battery-powered electric vehicles by 2050 will deepen global environmental and social inequalities linked to mining – and may even jeopardize the 1.5C global heating target.

The global demand for lithium, also known as white gold, is predicted to rise over 40 times by 2040, driven predominantly by the shift to electric vehicles. Lithium deposits are geologically widespread and abundant, but 95% of global production is currently concentrated in Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. Large new deposits have been found in diverse countries including Mexico, the US, Portugal, Germany, Kazakhstan, Congo and Mali. Grassroots protests and lawsuits against lithium mining are rising from the US and Chile to Serbia and Tibet amid rising concern about the socio-environmental impacts and increasingly tense geopolitics around supply. Lithium mining is, like all mining, environmentally and socially harmful. More than half the current lithium production, which is very water intensive, takes place in regions blighted by water shortages that are likely to get worse due to global heating. 

Lithium extraction has a track record of land and water pollution, ecosystem destruction and violations against Indigenous and rural communities. In the US, only one small lithium mine, in Nevada, is currently operational, but the drought-affected state has at least 50 new projects under development, opposed by some environmentalists, ranchers and Indigenous tribes. In Chile and Argentina, the world’s second- and fourth-largest lithium producers respectively, broken promises by corporations, water scarcity, land contamination and the lack of informed consent from Indigenous groups has fueled resistance and social conflicts.

Transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions in the US – and the only sector in which emissions are still growing. Over half of the nation’s car sales are predicted to be electric by 2030, and states like New York and California have passed laws phasing out the sale of gas cars. This is good news but there’s a catch: lithium.

Electric vehicles are already the largest source of demand for lithium – the soft, white metal common to all current rechargeable batteries. Mining lithium because of the demand for EVs is contributing to more social and environmental harm – and global supply chain bottlenecks. If Americans continue to depend on cars at the current rate, by 2050 the US alone would need triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market, which would have dire consequences for water and food supplies, biodiversity, and Indigenous rights.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to the report Achieving Zero Emission Transportation With More Mobility and Less MiningHow much lithium depends on policy decisions taken now, according to the report.

 Policies investing in mass transit, walkable towns and cities, and robust battery recycling in the US would slash the amount of extra lithium required in 2050 by more than 90%. In fact, this first-of-its-kind modeling shows it is possible to have more transport options for Americans that are safer, healthier and less segregated, and less harmful mining while making rapid progress to zero emissions. The largest reduction will come from changing the way we get around towns and cities – fewer cars, more walking, cycling and public transit made possible by denser cities – followed by downsizing vehicles and recycling batteries. 

If Americans can’t wean themselves off cars with big lithium batteries, increasing the density of metropolitan areas and investing in mass transit would cut cumulative demand for lithium between 18% and 66%. Limiting the size of EV batteries alone can cut lithium demand by up to 42% by 2050.

 Despite the cultural addiction to driving, fewer cars on the roads would not mean a sacrifice in the quality of life, convenience or safety for Americans, according to coauthor Kira McDonald, an economist and urban policy researcher.

 In addition, expanding mass transit systems would improve pedestrian safety and air quality, generating health and economic benefits.

Revealed: how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc | US news | The Guardian

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