Demand for lithium – the precious mineral needed to create electric-car batteries – could lead to water shortages and environmental destruction, according to a landmark study.
Soaring global demand for electric cars – and precious lithium which is crucial to making battery packs – could cause global conflict and dislocation, according to a report by the University of California and an environmental think tank.
The report – Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining – predicts moving the US vehicle fleet entirely to electric vehicles by 2050 would create global environmental and social inequalities caused by mining of lithium.
“Large-scale mining entails social and environmental harm, in many cases irreversibly damaging landscapes without the consent of affected communities,” the research, reported by the Guardian, said.
The global demand for lithium – a soft, silvery-white metal sometimes known as ‘white gold’ – is predicted to rise by more than 40 times by 2040, driven mostly by the surge in the sales of electric cars.
A lithium mine in Western Australia
“The US transition to electric vehicles could require three times as much lithium as is currently produced for the entire global market,” said the Californian report.
It reported resistance to lithium mining, with Chile, China, Argentina and Australia accounting for about 95 percent of the world’s production.
“Grassroots protests and lawsuits against lithium mining are on the rise from the US and Chile to Serbia and Tibet, amid rising concern about the socio-environmental impacts and increasingly tense geopolitics around supply,” the report said.
The report was based on four strategies to achieve zero-emission transportation in the US by 2050 – large batteries with no change to vehicle ownership, large batteries with reduced vehicle ownership, small batteries with reduced vehicle ownership, and small batteries with reduced vehicle ownership and recycling.
“This report finds that the United States can achieve zero-emissions transportation while limiting the amount of lithium mining necessary by reducing the car dependence of the transportation system, decreasing the size of (electric vehicle) batteries, and maximising lithium recycling,” it said.
The lead researcher for the report, Thea Riofrancos of Providence College, is an associate professor of political science and an expert on renewable energy, climate change and social movements.
“Preserving the status quo might seem like the politically easier option, but it’s not the fastest way to get people out of cars or the fairest way to decarbonise,” the associate professor said in her findings.
“We can either electrify the status quo to reach zero emissions, or the energy transition can be used as an opportunity to re-think our cities and the transportation sector so that it’s more environmentally and socially just, both in the US and globally.”
“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 saviours.
“I think at this point the question is not whether we decarbonise, but how. That’s still an open question, and I think we should be having a broader kind of social and political debate over the different ways forward on this.”
Paul Gover has been a motoring journalist for more than 40 years, working on newspapers, magazines, websites, radio and television. A qualified general news journalist and sports reporter, his passion for motoring led him to Wheels, Motor, Car Australia, Which Car and Auto Action magazines. He is a champion racing driver as well as a World Car of the Year judge.
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