As EV batteries consume more lithium, report warns against increased mining of it

Jason Vermes
Batteries destined for Volkswagen electric cars stand stacked at a Dresden, Germany, production facility. Lithium is increasingly needed for the batteries that power electric vehicles. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Feb. 25, 2023

Reducing reliance on personal vehicles, more public transit can cut emissions faster

What On Earth

The growing need for lithium — a mined metal used in batteries to power electric vehicles (EVs) — could have significant international environmental and social impacts if the U.S. doesn't reimagine its transportation policy, according to a recent report.

Lithium, listed as a "critical mineral" by several governments and agencies, is an integral part of the transition away from fossil fuels. 

While demand is exploding because of EVs, it's also used in batteries for energy storage systems, and smaller products like smartphone and e-bike batteries.

Targets in the U.S. call for half of all new vehicles sold to be electric by 2030. Canada's plan is even more ambitious, with 60 per cent electrified sales of new vehicles by 2030 — and 100 per cent fully-electric by 2035.

Efforts to replace fuel-powered cars with electrified versions, without reimagining public and active transport infrastructure programs, however, would require three times the current global production of lithium for the U.S. alone, says Thea Riofrancos, a co-author of the report, in an interview with What On Earth's Laura Lynch.

Labourer wearing flourescent safety vest stands in the foreground, looking at a dozer dumping lithium onto a piled row of the metal.
Lithium mine workers move salt byproduct at a lithium mine in the Atacama Desert in Salar de Atacama, Chile. (John Moore/Getty Images)

That, she says, could have harmful effects on the environment, climate change mitigation and Indigenous communities beyond the U.S.

"If we want to reduce our vulnerability to these supply chains, as well as reduce the impact of mining, all the more reason to get folks into e-bikes and buses as much as possible," said Riofrancos, associate professor of political science at Providence College in Rhode Island.

"It'll actually cut emissions faster if we don't try to replicate the car-dependent transportation system as we move into a new energy system."

While governments are promoting industries that support the transition to greener sources of energy, cars remain a popular — and, for some, the only — option for Canadians. Meanwhile, mining insiders say the industry is moving toward more sustainable approaches to unearthing critical minerals.

Fewer cars, more transit says report

The report laid out four scenarios as the world moves toward transport electrification, from worst to best case.

In the worst-case scenario, car ownership, urban sprawl and public transport programs remain unchanged. The need for lithium for EV batteries continues to grow, particularly as battery capacities grow for larger vehicles like electric pickup trucks.

In the best-case scenario, governments would use policy and funding levers to "nudge" people toward taking transit or a bike to work and the grocery store, while some continue to use EVs. It would also bring battery sizes of vehicles for the North American market in line with global averages, meaning smaller vehicles.

The latter would require 92 per cent less lithium by the year 2050 compared to the former.

"We don't think the best-case scenario is immediately achievable," said Riofrancos. "But it does, I think, give us a sense of the realm of possibility [to] then think about how to use policy and advocacy to bring us closer to that best case scenario."

WATCH | Natural resources minister says country must move faster on mining:

Can Canada capitalize on a potential treasure trove of critical minerals? Watch here:

3 months ago
"We have to go faster. It cannot take us 12 to 15 years to permit new mines in this country if we want to successfully advance the energy transition," said Natural Resource Minister Jonathan Wilkinson as the federal government released its critical minerals strategy Friday.

Lana Eagle, a mining consultant who connects with Indigenous communities with the industry, says that while policies may change to limit the size of EV batteries, or the number of vehicles sold, Canada's vast geography means a one-size-fits-all approach won't work for the entire country.

"I live in British Columbia. There are a lot of remote and rural communities. I can't see how an electric bus is going to fulfil the lives of people living in those different areas," she said. 

"So while there may be a push to a policy that wants to put fewer vehicles on the road, I think you really have to consider where do people live and how do they get by, and how are we going to manage that."

Federal critical minerals strategy

In Canada, the federal government released its critical minerals strategy in December, setting a path toward increased production of 31 minerals and metals.

Of those 31 minerals, six — lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements — are being prioritized. All but copper are needed for building batteries.

"Simply put, there is no green energy transition without critical minerals," Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said last year when he unveiled the strategy in Vancouver.

Mining for lithium can be incredibly water intensive. The process can involve releasing water from aquifers and leaving it to evaporate in what's known as salt flats. What's left is a variety of minerals and metals, including lithium, that is then gathered and processed.

It's a common practice in South America, where Argentina, Chile and Bolivia are among the world's top producers.

Red truck drives on a road between two expansive lithium pools.
Lithium is mined in some parts of the world by extracting water into salt ponds and letting the liquid evaporate until all that's left is the metal. (Pablo Cozzaglio/AFP/Getty Images)

"It has created a lot of resistance around Indigenous groups in the area because their ecosystems are drying," said Teresa Kramarz, assistant professor at the University of Toronto School of Environment and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab, in an interview with The Current guest host Duncan McCue.

Kramarz notes that projections indicate Canada will need to produce 40 times the current amount of lithium by 2040 to keep up with demand.

"That is because we are thinking about a status quo scenario in which we just simply do everything that we're doing in terms of using fossil fuel for cars [and] we switch to just electric mobility. 

"That is a choice. That is a policy choice."

LISTEN | Experts discuss the impact of lithium mining in Canada:

Greener mining alternatives

Mining proponents say that lithium mining can be done in a more sustainable way, and with greater input from Indigenous stakeholders.

Common Good Mining, a startup company where Eagle is a board member and vice-president of Indigenous affairs, is planning what they call "tiny" mines. 

The operations — which are currently exploring for nickel, copper and zinc in British Columbia — would not create large open pits or underground shafts, Eagle says. Rather, they would drill holes into the earth and extract minerals that way.

"Ten years from now, people will never know we've been there," said Eagle. They have yet to mine lithium, she noted.

Close up of a hand holding an electric vehicle charging cord plugging it into a car's charging port.
Reducing the reliance on personal vehicles, in favour of transit and active transport like biking, can help reduce emissions faster, says Thea Riofrancos. (Gillian Flaccus/The Associated Press)

Chris Doornbos, president and CEO of E3 Lithium based in Alberta, says his company's method operates as a closed-loop system. 

Lithium-enriched water is extracted from the ground and pushed through a series of pipes where the metal is extracted. It's then sent back into the aquifer. Doornbos says the extracted water never comes into contact with freshwater, and the land use is only three per cent of an evaporative pond.

"Canada has a really big part to play in developing a critical minerals supply chain. We have good governance in Canada, a secure jurisdiction and we have the resources," he told The Current.

Gen Z driving less

As Canada moves forward with its critical minerals strategy, Riofrancos says there are already shifts in car ownership among younger generations.

"Generation Z is less and less interested in car ownership — finds it expensive and unsustainable and all sorts of things," she said.

"So even from a political angle, I think there's reasons to think about different types of transportation policies."

And while her report focused on lithium requirements for the U.S. market, she says that reimagining transportation north of the border can help reduce emissions faster — and create a more equitable society.

"What I would like to see is to see the climate movement, kind of as a whole, think about transit and transportation policy and land use policy as some of those critical things we can advocate for as we're looking ahead to a zero-emissions future," she said.

Interview with Thea Riofrancos produced by What On Earth's Molly Segal. The Current segment produced by Julie Crysler and Allison Dempster.


  • This article has been updated to clarify that Common Good Mining is currently in a exploratory phase for mining minerals.
    Feb 27, 2023 10:08 AM ET

[Top photo: Batteries destined for Volkswagen electric cars stand stacked at a Dresden, Germany, production facility. Lithium is increasingly needed for the batteries that power electric vehicles. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)]