New Report Spotlights Potential Hidden Costs of Electrification

Volvo is one of the automakers leading the charge to ensure sustainable and responsible sourcing of battery materials. (Volvo Car USA)

The Los Angeles Times has published a report detailing the unseen environmental consequences of the electric vehicle (EV) revolution. While decreasing carbon emissions – the chief instigator of climate change – is the ultimate goal of electrification, the road to success is also paved with potentially serious effects on the environment. In particular, sourcing the materials necessary to create the batteries that power EVs is potentially problematic.

According to a citation in the Bloomberg New Energy report, electric car sales will account for 1.7 million vehicles sold globally this year. By 2025, that number may increase to 8.5 million. In the U.S., California is at the forefront of America’s move toward carbon neutrality, with a ban on sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines going into effect in 2035.

Switching to electric vehicles means the industry will significantly increase demand for the raw materials and rare minerals needed for battery production. The L.A. Times report highlights some of the methods proposed to search for these materials, finding that these processes alter the surface of the earth, unavoidably impacting the environment. From flora to fauna, commercial mining activities affect the immediate area and nearby communities. As a result, environmentalists are sounding the alarm about the effects of such proposals.

For example, to reduce dependence on foreign entities, particularly China, companies in the U.S. seek new sources of local materials. Currently, only one lithium mine exists in America, and the Nevada site produces enough lithium for 100,000 batteries. To grow local sourcing of lithium for the millions of planned EVs, a new proposal by a Canadian mining company seeks to mine in Native American tribal lands in Nevada. The Times report cites mining permits that use 7,000 acres of land, with 1,100 acres dug up to 300 feet deep into the earth and 5,800 tons of sulfuric acid used daily. The net result would be enough lithium for one million batteries.


The Times report also details plans for deep-sea trawling for nodules, which are rocks that contain many of the minerals needed for battery production. The Metals Company, one of the few select companies currently holding permissions to sift the ocean floor in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean, said their operation would be less disruptive than land mining. The nodules the company collects could contain enough manganese, cobalt, copper, and nickel to build 280 million EV batteries.

However, an international consortium of scientists has warned that with a start date just three years away, there is not enough time to study all the effects this ocean-sifting plan would have on the ecosystem, which they say could be devastating. Notably, both BMW and Volvo have pledged not to use battery materials sourced from the ocean floor.

With new mandates to replacing vehicles with internal combustion engines with EVs, demand for batteries and minerals will skyrocket soon. The Biden administration plans to incorporate battery recycling in its push for EV consumption to lessen the need for brand new minerals. An IHS Markit report has found that, by 2040, eight million tons of battery materials could end up in landfills without robust battery recycling programs. If implemented, recycling could reduce the need for copper by 55 percent.

To address environmental concerns and transition to credibly sustainable operations, some automakers are going above and beyond the lip service of merely building and selling EVs by espousing transparency in their supply chains to hold them accountable. By doing so, they hope to minimize harmful effects to the ecosystem, from materials sourcing to recycling.

Volvo Cars is one company leading the charge, embracing a circular economy for manufacturing. Ultimately, it will choose every material in one of its vehicles based on its ability to be recovered and reused at the end of its life cycle.

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