Study: We Need Smaller EVs, More Public Transport, and Less Car Ownership. Say What?

Smaller EVs and more public transport 6 photos
Photo: Image by Freepik
Lithium mining has many downsidesReducing car dependency and ownershipLithium Demand Reduction for US Passenger TransportBigger cars are the millstone for real sustainabilityComparative chart of e-Hummer, EV, e-bus, and e-bike lithium intensities
Almost 300 million vehicles are roaming the roads of America, most of which are propelled by internal combustion engines. No problem, we’ll replace them with EVs, and this way we’ll slash emissions and pollutants by half, right? Not so fast. We don’t have the Infinity Stones from the “Avengers” movie to eradicate half of U.S. transportation sector pollution in an instant.
As the car market struggles to keep up, EV sales are booming. By 2030, it is estimated that more than half of the new cars sold in the U.S. will be electric. That’s a piece of good news, but it’s far from achieving the zero-emissions transportation goal by 2050.

Because in the best-case scenario, electric vehicles will top at most 60% of the projected 300-350 million vehicles in use in the U.S. in 2050. The vast majority of the rest of the cars will be hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen-powered, while a small percentage will still be conventional gasoline cars.

While hybrid technology’s efficiency could slash emissions by almost half compared to conventional gasoline engines, in the big picture, this is still not enough for our goal. And then we must also add the burden of battery manufacturing-related emissions. Is there a way out?

The very complicated YES

In January 2023, researchers from UC Davis and the climate policy think tank Climate and Community Project issued the report “Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining.” Unsurprisingly, it emphasizes the emissions from lithium mining.

By the way, for some years now, this subject is the most used argument by those who oppose electromobility. And yes, they are right if you don’t put things into context. But, if you compare it to emissions and environmental damage caused by fossil fuels extraction, transport, and refinery, the debate becomes comedically unserious.

Actually, UC Davis Ph.D. Frank Mitloehner stated on CLEAR Center’s blog that “Big oil distracts from their carbon footprint by tricking you to focus on yours”. It’s the same with focusing on lithium mining and EV battery manufacturing emissions. But let’s get back to that report.

Lithium mining has many downsides
Photo: Image by upklyak on Freepik
Researchers’ opinion is that “large-scale mining [of lithium] entails social and environmental harm.” This is true, and for time being I won’t bring into discussion any comparison to fossil fuels counterpart. However, lithium mining is still a small part of the mining industry, which is to blame as a whole for these downsides.

Hold on, let’s put things in perspective

Let’s see lithium mining forecasts for 2030. The most recent comes from Albemarle Corporation. In its 2023 Strategic Update report, the 2030 global lithium demand (LCE, lithium carbonate equivalent) is estimated to be 3.7 million metric tons. This is five times more than the 2022 level of around 0.7 MMt.

It's a 15% increase – which frankly is a lot – from its previous forecast because of the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, that will increase EV demand. Oh, in case you are wondering why you should trust their forecast, let’s just say that it’s the biggest U.S. lithium supplier for EV batteries. They know a thing or two about the industry…

Their report also estimates that the 2030 mined supply of LCE will be around 2.9 MMt. This means the deficit of around 0.8 MMt LCE must come mainly from recycling and other forms of sourcing lithium – many new technologies are still in the pilot phase, and no one knows for sure if they could be operational by 2030.

Of course, new mining sites are crucial, but Albemarle points out that bringing on new capacity requires many years and huge investments. For instance, integrated projects come in at around 14 years (!), and the deficit requires more than new 100 mining projects, in Albemarle’s analysis.

You can have fewer emissions using less lithium

While that’s an obvious claim, it looks like a contradiction. We just saw the forecasts stating we need five times more lithium in 2030 than today. So, how is it possible to get rid of that stringent need? Actually, the answer is very simple, but you probably won’t like it.

UC Davis report has two requirements. One is to reduce car dependency. Simply put, you should use public and active transit instead of your personal electric car. It’s not a new idea at all. If most of us would do that today, transport emissions would slash significantly.

Reducing car dependency and ownership
Photo: Image by upklyak on Freepik
But it means a huge behavioral change. I remember that meme, where someone asks “Who wants change?,” and the crowd is cheering. Then the question is “Who wants to change?,” and the crowd is all quiet. One can’t simply walk away from his comfort zone. Unless government adopts increasingly ambitious policies to support public and active transportation. In such scenarios, UC Davis researchers found that reducing car dependency, and therefore use and ownership can limit lithium demand by up to 66% by 2050. This way, there’s almost no need for new mining sites!

Less lithium is… less car?

The other requirement of their report is limiting the EV battery size. Now, this is an interesting proposition. Or should I say an outrageous one? It simply contradicts the car makers’ race for bigger batteries to meet customers’ demand for a longer range.

Consider people’s appetite for larger SUVs and trucks, which suits very well carmakers’ raising margin profits. For instance, the entry-level Ford Mustang Mach-e approximately 75 kWh battery has the same range as the electric F-150 Lihgtning’s 98 kWh battery. In this case, choosing the smaller car is reducing the need for lithium by roughly 25%.

Would you make this choice for the greater good? Because in this scenario, smaller batteries and smaller cars could lead to reducing the need for mining lithium by 42%. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. roads full of small EVs, but the trend of bigger cars must be reversed in order to achieve the ambitious zero-emissions goal.

Lithium Demand Reduction for US Passenger Transport
Photo: Climate and Community Project
How about solid-state batteries? They promise the same range for half the size of a conventional lithium-ion battery. In theory, Ford F-150 Lightning would need an approximately 50 kWh solid-state battery instead of the 98 kWh lithium-ion battery for the same 230 miles (370 km) range.

Unfortunately, solid-state battery EVs will be too few to really solve the problem. In 2030, they will account for less than 10% of total battery EVs. So, I expect it will all come down to regulations favoring smaller and lighter EVs by taxing heavier EVs.

There is a point in reducing the need for lithium

Combining the two requirements in the report – reducing personal ownership and smaller EV batteries – could lead to an almost five-fold demand cut by 2050. Adding to the equation the large-scale recycling of lithium, which is already a thriving business, we could virtually stop or at least sharply reduce the increases in demand.

This is reducing lithium mining, and this way, mitigating key drivers for harms like drought intensity, ecosystem biodiversity, and Indigenous sovereignty. In the report, these are even more important than remaining within a sectoral carbon budget consistent with limiting to 1.5-2°C (34.7-35.6°F) of warming, so I’m sure the UC Davis report will be highly praised by EVs critics.

Bigger cars are the millstone for real sustainability
Photo: Joao Kleber Amaral for autoevolution
However, the real food for thought here is the real need for the U.S. car industry and for Americans to accept the imperative need to change their habits. Bigger cars are the millstone for real sustainability. Large electric SUVs and trucks are not better than their ICE counterparts. They are just a little less bad.

By aggressively advertising electric SUVs over normal electric cars, carmakers are simply replacing gas-guzzler SUVs with high-related pollution battery SUVs. And this reminds me of a wrongly attributed quote to Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
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Editor's note:

Open Image by Freepik

Mining Image by upklyak on Freepik

Public Transport Image by upklyak on Freepik

About the author: Oraan Marc
Oraan Marc profile photo

After graduating college with an automotive degree, Oraan went for a journalism career. 15 years went by and another switch turned him from a petrolhead into an electrohead, so watch his profile for insight into green tech, EVs of all kinds and alternative propulsion systems.
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