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Report Shows Path to Zero-Emission Passenger Transport with 'More Mobility and Less Mining'

A new report shows a just pathway to zero-emission urban mobility. Simple changes such as smaller EV batteries can greatly improve resource-use efficiency; but holistically reducing car dependence will be paramount.

Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States and the only sector where emissions are still rising. But the transition to more electrified transport is well underway: Both California and New York plan to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Electrifying the entire US vehicle fleet is a cornerstone of President Biden’s climate plan; and new legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act, provides hefty incentives for electrifying transport. Half of all new car sales in the US will be electric vehicles (EV) by 2030; and companies including General Motors plan to stop selling gas- and diesel-powered vehicles well before mid-century.

But there’s a problem: Many US-made EVs are way too big. According to the International Energy Agency, SUVs and large cars dominate the US EV market. Electric SUV batteries are often two to three times larger than those found in small electric cars, which require more critical metals such as lithium. By 2050, the US alone will require three times the amount of global lithium produced today — which means as much as a 200 percent increase in lithium mining by 2035. According to rankings from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, large EVs are actually worse for the environment than some gas-powered cars, showing that size and fuel source are equally important.

A recent report from the Climate and Community Project (CCP) — a climate-policy think tank developing research at the nexus of climate and inequality — highlights how zero-emission urban transport systems can be achieved with less extraction associated with electrification, showing how even relatively small and simple steps — such as smaller EV batteries — can have monumental returns on resource-use efficiency.

CCP works to connect the demands of the climate-justice movement to the policy-development process by developing investment-forward public-policy proposals that target the intersection of climate justice and the built environment. In Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining, the authors — which include researchers from CCP, Providence College, University of California Davis, and landscape architecture and urban design firm TEN x TEN — point out that most transportation forecasts assume car sales and dependency will continue to climb at a steady rate, with internal combustion engines (ICEs) gradually giving way to full electrification. But with large cars and SUVs dominating the EV market, we may be swapping a fossil-fueled problem for an electrified one — which will accelerate demand for mined metals for batteries.

Batteries may be key to electrifying our future, but their production remains problematic: To meet the demands of the booming EV and renewable-energy industries, we’ll need to unearth massive amounts of raw materials — in particular, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese — for battery production. Mining for these metals puts a heavy strain on the surrounding environment — large areas of earth are removed and a vast amount of water is required (it takes 500,000 gallons of water to mine one tonne of lithium), which can lead to nearby reservoirs being poisoned and water being diverted from local communities. In addition to this, metal mining has been linked to human rights violations and child labor.

And while startups and tech giants alike are advancing recycling of these metals, we’re likely still years away from the supply being able to lessen demand for more mining.

So, the report asks: “What is the most globally just pathway to decarbonizing the US transportation sector — the number-one source of US emissions? How can the transition to renewable energy avoid creating new sacrifice zones — where ecosystems are disrupted, rights violated, and social conflict triggered under the banner of fighting the climate crisis?”

The report points out that focusing solely on electrification — without a holistically redesign of our urban transportation systems to decrease private car ownership while simultaneously increasing mobility — will be counterproductive on both the climate and social-justice fronts: The key for decarbonizing US transportation will lie in expanding lithium recycling while drastically reducing the amount of lithium required by decreasing EV battery sizes.

Compared to electrifying transportation at current vehicle ownership rates, the report presents scenarios that reduce car dependency and limit EV battery sizes that can lower lithium demand between 18 and 66 percent; just limiting the size of EV batteries could reduce lithium demand as much as 42 percent, even if the number of cars on the road and the frequency at which they’re used stay the same.

There’s one glaring caveat, however: In all but the last and most lithium-efficient scenario modeled, US demand for lithium will still vastly exceed current global production. Though the need for new lithium mines is likely unavoidable, the report models how deep decarbonization of passenger transport can still be done in an environmentally and socially responsible way.

Beyond climate benefits

The US’s obsession with car dependency is inextricably tied to racist infrastructure policies including redlining and highway construction that have separated communities and greatly limited urban accessibility — particularly, for poor communities of color — for decades. Creating a just, accessible and fully electrified transportation system requires a complete rethink of many car-centric urban policies and infrastructure.

For a just, sustainable transition for urban transportation, electrification of private vehicles must be done in tandem with creating new transportation systems that make it easy to live, work and play without a car. Some of the pathways explored in the report include denser metro areas facilitating more public transit trips; and building infrastructure favoring mass transit, biking and walking over car transport.

As the report points out: “Major investments to shift away from US car dependency would have benefits spanning from the frontlines of mining, which would see reduced social and environmental harms, to densified metropolitan areas throughout the country — which would experience myriad benefits from improved air quality to pedestrian safety. … Ultimately, climate, transit and [social] justice can be aligned. Doing so requires an ambitious rethinking of the energy transition that emphasizes benefits for communities and ecosystems most impacted by the climate crisis.

“Just as the United States has a responsibility to cut its fair share of emissions, it also has a responsibility to reduce stress on harmful and vulnerable supply chains and to model a different transportation future.”

The authors of the report either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to a request for comment as of press time.

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