US study finds electric vehicle reliance must be reduced

A study from the University of California has found that lithium mining presents an environmental danger, and that electric vehicle size must be reduced.

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A study in the US has found that the lithium that is used in the batteries of an electric vehicle, could be leading to environmental destruction. 

The primary factors in the conclusion of the study, which was conducted by the University of California, regard the mining operations used to harvest lithium.

“Large-scale mining entails social and environmental harm,” the study says, which can include an increase in drought intensity and reductions in biodiversity.

The study found that “In the United States specifically, 79 percent of known lithium deposits sit within 35 miles of Native American reservations,” and that mining operations are often begun without obtaining the permission of the indigenous people in the area.

There are, therefore, both environmental and social issues regarding mining, the second of which the study says are also apparent outside the US, in South American countries such as Chile and Argentina.

Additionally, as global warming increases, the Earth's water shortage intensifies. Europe is not typically in drought, historically speaking, but even places like the UK were in drought conditions in 2022, and already this year much of France is warned of drought conditions. One US-based example of a proposed lithium mining project would have an equivalent annual water usage of 15,000 US homes. So, it is clear to see that lithium mining actually exacerbates issues (or, at least, an issue) created by global heating, which the lithium itself is intended to ease.

The impact of this on the transport industry is significant, since, despite the use of lithium in batteries for a large number of applications including standard household electronics, the largest demand for lithium comes from the transport industry, as reported by the Guardian.

The ultimate conclusion reached by the study is unfortunately not that we should all buy a 1000cc sports bike or adventure motorcycle. Instead, it is that decarbonising the US transport industry necessitates a reduction in lithium demand, because the mining of it is unsustainable. This can be done in several ways, including reducing the size of electric vehicles and the batteries used in them. But the primary solution offered by the study is to change the overall philosophy of transportation, from primarily-private to primarily-public transport; and to change the ways in which communities are constructed in order to increase the benefits of the increased public transport, by increasing the population density in both "low-density suburban" areas and "high-density urban spaces." 

Having larger percentages of populations concentrated in smaller places makes it easier, and less energy-consuming, to move them around than if people are dispersed, because you can do it with less vehicles, and minimise the energy used by each publicly-used vehicle by maximising the capacity of each vehicle to carry passengers. If all of those passengers are travelling to vaguely the same place and needing to be in that place at vaguely the same time, then the transport system is optimised, energy usage is reduced, and therefore demand for the energy source (in this case lithium) is reduced.

“Our findings,” the study says, “show that reducing dependence on private vehicles, densifying low-density suburbs while allowing more people to live in existing high-density urban spaces, and improving EV efficiency and reducing battery sizes are the most effective pathways to reducing future lithium demand.”

With smaller batteries that can travel only limited distances and a heavy reliance on public transport to carry people from predetermined location to predetermined location within relatively small places, it is unclear how leisure-based travel would work in this scenario. This seems somewhat trivial, but at the same time if you have millions of people locked into public transport networks which are their only means of moving around, there are going to be people within that who feel as though they miss some agency, or independence. It is all good having a public transport system with an optimised energy strategy, but if the people using that system cannot bear to do so, other problems will be created. 

This is because people feel, with some justification, that they are entitled to some freedoms, and the ability to go more or less wherever you want, more or less whenever you want, is a part of that. Arguably, this is the greatest strength of private transport. If you own a car and are licenced to drive it, or own a motorcycle and are licenced to ride it, you can take it wherever you want. You can enjoy the destination and the journey (and you might enjoy the journey more with two wheels compared to four). In a primarily-public transport system, this agency is lost, and so, almost certainly, is the enjoyment of the journey. The study mentions walking and cycling among zero-emissions transport options, but range in this case is a factor, as is accessibility for disabled people. (Thoughts immediately go to how to make cycling less physically demanding for ordinary people, so they can cycle longer distances, and e-bikes are at least one answer, but they require lithium.) 

In a primarily-public transport system, planning is involved if you want to go from the urban area to the suburban area, to use the terms used in the study which, although US-centric, is generalisable on account of the electrification process of global transport. This urban-suburban transit is one example, but moving outside of the system entirely could potentially be complicated, too. 

Spending large amounts of time in a place which is filled with other people is generally a source of growing stress, tension, and anxiety for people, which they occasionally need to escape from. (This is not necessarily a definite block to a transport system based primarily on public transit, but it is at least a challenge to consider.)

Certainly, the environmental impact of lithium mining is a subject which has piqued the interest of enjoyers of internal combustion in recent years, but the solution is not to remain where we are, even if it is also not to rely solely on public transport (as much as those developing, or at least attempting to develop, automated transport might like it to be).

A recent report by Uplift and Oceana included a freedom of information (FOI) request to the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning which found that “Just under 13,000 tonnes of oil were released into UK waters by the oil and gas industry,” between 2017 and 2022. 

Offshore Technology reports that Repsol Sinopec, which is soon to be wholly-owned by Repsol, were among the top five “spillers” in this five-year period. Each of those companies in the top five exceeded the permitted limit for spilled oil, according to Offshore Technology.

The point is that the reality of lithium mining’s environmental impact does not negate the environmental impact of oil extraction, refining, and combustion. However, it is also worth bearing it in mind, since, as the report from the University of California alludes to, failing to do so would simply shift the environmental challenges of the transport industry from one place (tailpipe) to another (production), with no real environmental benefit of doing so.

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