TAKE ACTION: ACT LOCALLYJanuary 17, 2019
THE FEDERAL ELECTRIC VEHICLE TAX CREDIT AND OTHER INCENTIVESMarch 21, 2019
Multiple reports confirm that Electric Vehicles (EVs) are already cleaner than internal combustion engine vehicles over the lifecycle of the vehicle, even in states where the electricity mix includes coal. And EVs continue to get cleaner as they become more efficient and electric grids incorporate more clean, renewable energy from sources like sun and wind. However, many people still express concern about the sustainability of lithium ion EV batteries.
These concerns extend beyond EV batteries. Lithium ion batteries are used in billions of cellphones, laptops, and every other battery-powered device on earth.
Concerns about lithium ion batteries may be short-lived, as battery technology is advancing quickly, and EV battery components may be very different in the near future. Companies are investing enormous resources in the development of new battery technologies, including solid state batteries, sodium ion, iron air and silicon anode and other materials. It is likely that one or more of these technologies will arrive on the market in the next decade. Toyota’s new solid state batteries could hit the market by 2027.
If EV batteries continue to be made of lithium ion, the primary concerns are: 1) labor practices for mining cobalt; 2) environmental impacts of extracting lithium; 3) sufficient supply of materials for EV batteries; 4) carbon emissions from battery manufacture; and 5) toxic waste from disposal of used batteries.
1) Concern: Labor Practices For Mining Cobalt
Some writers have sought to cast doubt on the ability of electric vehicles (EVs) to replace gasoline-powered vehicles based on concerns about the supply of the mineral cobalt contained within their batteries. It is true that lithium ion batteries in cell phones, laptops and now even EVs require extracting natural resources — just as most items that humans consume. One such resource is cobalt. About 70% of cobalt currently comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it is mined using child labor and other unethical practices. Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo was rated the 3d worst country for child labor practices in 2019, although it did not make the top 10 worst child labor countries at all in 2023. Fortunately, the US Department of Energy is supporting R&D of cobalt-free batteries, and many automakers are already developing such batteries.
Ultimately, mining concerns are not unique to EV batteries. We need to keep insisting on ethical, sustainable supply chains — not just for cobalt, but for all materials and products we use.
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2) Concern: Environmental Impacts Of Extracting Lithium
The amount of lithium mining is miniscule compared to other minerals:
Top lithium producers currently are Australia and Chile. The majority of lithium is extracted from water in brine pools and brine deposits, primarily in the desert in Chile. A naturally occurring concentrated solution is pumped out of the ground and put into large ponds to evaporate the excess water. The remaining lithium compound is then purified and processed. The main environmental concern with this extraction process is that it can impact water supply in the desert. However, new extraction technologies are in development, including ones that use much less water and land, and take much less time.
In Australia, lithium is mined from rocks, which, like the mining of coal and other fossil fuels, raises environmental issues. As with all minerals that are mined, care must be taken to ensure the sustainability of the mining process.
3) Concern: Sufficient Supplies Of EV Battery Materials
Fourty-four countries have announced plans to phase out gasoline vehicles and move to electric cars by as early as 2025, and the number is growing. Some worry there won’t be sufficient supplies of cobalt or lithium to serve the increased demand for EV batteries. This concern is not well-founded, for these reasons:
COBALT AND EV BATTERIES:
For those EVs which do use cobalt, their cobalt usage is likely to decline by about 70%. Presently, many EV batteries contain an equal mix of nickel, manganese, and cobalt. The next generation of batteries will contain eight parts nickel (an abundant material) for each part of manganese and cobalt.
Cobalt was historically not a mineral in great demand, and was produced mainly as a byproduct of other mining. It is likely that entirely new sources of cobalt will be developed as mining companies zero in on cobalt sources.
LITHIUM AND EV BATTERIES:
Lithium is the 26th most abundant element. Some forecasters predict a surplus of lithium in 2023, but demand is expected to rise 20% a year through 2030, and concerns have been expressed that supply won’t keep up.
As demand for lithium grows, efforts are under way to develop additional sources in the U.S., and many groups racing to increase production. It is estimated that the lithium in Southern California’s Salton Sea could meet the entire US demand for EV batteries and ⅓ of world demand. New extraction techniques are unlocking new sources of lithium and enabling it to be processed faster with fewer resources. Given the abundance of lithium and developments around its discovery and extraction, it seems unlikely that a shortage of lithium will make a shift to EVs impossible.
4) Concern: Carbon Emissions From Manufacture Of EV Batteries:
Over the lifetime of the vAll told, battery electric cars generate fewer emissions of the average comparable gasoline car (4 times fewer emissions in some cases) even when battery manufacturing is included in the calculation. EV battery manufacture, like many manufacturing processes, is getting cleaner as manufacturers race to cut the associated emissions. Audi’s e-Tron batteries are made at a carbon-neutral facility, and Audi has committed that all its manufacturing plants will be carbon neutral by 2025. The EV battery maker CATL has made a similar commitment. Also, as the electric vehicle industry grows, battery recycling rates will increase, further reducing the emissions from battery manufacture.
5) Concern: Toxic Waste From Disposal Of Used EV Batteries:
Current EV batteries may last longer than anyone predicted. A Tesla has traveled more than 400,000 miles on its original battery, and it’s reported that only 1.5% of EVs on the road today have had a non-recall battery replacement. When EV batteries degrade enough to be unsuitable for cars (about 70% capacity remaining), they can be re-used for electricity storage. But what will happen to them when they’re no longer suitable for any use? With current technology, 95% of the materials in the battery can be recycled. Tesla, Ford, Volvo and Toyota are committed to EV battery recycling. Gigafactories for EV batteries such as the Northvolt factory in Sweden are aiming to obtain half their materials from recycled batteries by 2030. China recycled 414,000 tons of lithium ion batteries in 2022 – a 75% increase from 2021. The US Department of Energy has made billions of dollars of loans to battery recycling companies, and in July 2023 allocated an additional $192 million for battery recycling research.
What’s needed now is global policies requiring battery recycling. The European Union has adopted regulations requiring EV battery recycling, and China is working to tighten its EV battery recycling laws. Commitments to make a complete transition to electric vehicles will help provide the market certainty needed for mass investment in battery recycling facilities.
Batteries are a challenge for electrification of the vehicle fleet, but not an overwhelming one. The problems have been identified, and solutions are in the works. New sources of production, battery recycling, improved focus on human rights issues in Africa, and changing battery technologies will allow EVs to continue supplanting gasoline vehicles. Amnesty International has called for action by government, industry, innovators, investors and consumers to create an ethical and sustainable battery, which can be used for electric vehicles and in the electronic industry.
Electric car batteries are generally warranted for 8 years of 100,000 miles, but new EV batteries are lasting much longer – in some cases, up to 400,000 miles. Assuming a gas car would last for 200,000 miles, choosing an EV could be like getting two cars for the price of one! Learn more about electric vehicle battery life.
Also, about 1/3 of electric car drivers have rooftop solar, so their electricity is coming from sunshine – saving fuel costs as well as the environment. Learn more about charging your EV with solar panels, finding free places to charge your EV and more about electric vehicle batteries in general with our free guide.
Gasoline will always be a pollutant that emits toxic air pollutants and can only be burned once — emitting 20 pounds of CO2 per gallon, which stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
We shouldn’t stop the EV revolution because of electric vehicle batteries.
WE NEED TO CUT GASOLINE USE FASTER
Electric vehicles are only getting cleaner. They’re the most effective way to cut gasoline use quickly – especially for those drivers who are using the most gasoline (“gasoline superusers”), who often must commute long distances to work and don’t have access to transit.
We can’t afford to wait any longer to make the switch.
Neither can our lungs or the climate.