Are electric cars really better for the environment?
Illustrative image. A typical 200-mile range EV lugs around a lithium-ion battery pack that's nearly a third of the weight of the vehicle. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Electric vehicles, you might have heard, have a mineral problem.

Beneath the floor of an EV sits a 900-pound battery filled with minerals extracted from around the world. Millions of tons of lithium, cobalt, bauxite and other minerals are mined, processed, shipped and refined - sometimes leaving a trail of human rights and environmental abuses.

For some, that makes fossil fuel engines look good by comparison. No one wants to drive around on the cobalt equivalent of blood diamonds. But does all this mining negate the climate and environmental benefits of EVs compared to sticking with gas?

I looked into the world's evolving supply chains for the clean-energy economy. In every scenario, it turns out, the demand for battery minerals represents a tiny fraction of the amounts of fossil fuels now needed to power the world.

But not everything is measured in tons. For EVs to fulfill their clean-energy promise, they need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the first Industrial Revolution. Miners and manufacturers can embrace cleaner ways to get the materials they need, and recover more of what they use.

Here's how EVs and gasoline cars stack up:

The toll of battery materials

Almost all cars require steel, aluminum, copper, plastic, rubber and glass.

Where EVs differ most from conventional vehicles is in their battery packs.

A typical 200-mile range EV lugs around a lithium-ion battery pack that's nearly a third of the weight of the vehicle. Much of that weight is the battery pack's casing, structural materials and a liquid electrolyte that ferries electrons around to charge and discharge the battery.

But roughly 353 pounds are crucial minerals or metals, including cobalt, nickel, manganese, graphite, aluminum and copper, estimates Transport and Environment, a nongovernmental organization campaigning for cleaner transport. Not counting steel and aluminum, says MIT, an EV requires six times more minerals than a conventional vehicle.

The transition to low-carbon fuels is not a magic bullet with no negative outcome. There is no free lunch. But it's much less harmful than if we stay with fossil fuels.

- Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at MIT

We will need a massive increase in these materials in the coming years. Global EV sales are predicted to surpass gas-vehicle sales in just over a decade after having blown past early projections. General Motors, Volkswagen, Volvo, Hyundai and Honda committed to electrifying their lineup. With jurisdictions from California to the European Union prohibiting the sale of most new fossil fuel vehicles by 2035, the vast majority of new passenger vehicles are likely to be electric well before mid-century.

That will mean expanding today's mines and launching new ones.

"The volume is large and it's going to get very large," says Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science at the University of California at Berkeley. Gigafactories springing up around the world to build batteries are already straining the volume of clean-energy minerals the mining industry can produce.

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Mining minerals is never a clean affair. Cobalt from Congo, lithium and graphite from China, nickel from Indonesia and Russia, and battery supply chains that run through Xinjiang, in the Uyghur region where forced labor has been rampant: All of these have immediate problems, which The Washington Post explored in our "Clean Cars, Hidden Toll" series. Guinea, home to the world's largest bauxite reserves for aluminum, yields misery for local communities. Nickel refiners in Indonesia are adopting a risky technology. Mineworkers in South Africa, the world's largest producer of manganese, face neurological ills.

These environmental and social problems are real. But compared to the track record of the oil, gas and coal industry, they are a drop in the barrel.

Oil extraction dwarfs mining

To compare EVs with conventional vehicles, first we need to look at how much stuff we pull out of the ground to make and fuel them.

Mining minerals for the clean-energy economy is measured in millions of tons per year. For fossil fuel extraction, that's a rounding error.

In 2020, building the world's wind turbines, solar panels, EVs and other clean-energy infrastructure demanded 7 million tons of minerals, estimates the International Energy Agency. Roughly half of this was destined for batteries and EVs.

The oil, gas and coal industry, by contrast, extracted the equivalent of 15 billion metric tons in 2019. And the industry will need to extract it year after year to keep supplying energy. Clean-energy technology can use these materials for decades or, if recycled, in perpetuity.

"That's a point we've been trying to make for a long time," says Kwasi Ampofo, the head of metals and mining at BloombergNEF, a clean-energy research group in London. "Even on a volumetric basis, it's important to highlight the fact that fossil fuels are not comparable."

That remains true even if EVs and batteries were part of a massive, global transition to clean energy. In a scenario limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the IEA estimates the amount of critical minerals needed would be roughly 500 times less in terms of volume than today's fossil fuel extraction.

Of course, material mined isn't a perfect gauge of environmental damage. Local environmental effects tend to scale with the amount of stuff we pull out of the ground.

Extracting 1 ton of copper, for example, requires digging up around 100 tons of ore. But even accounting for this, estimates Sam Calisch, a scientist at the nonprofit Rewiring America, mining minerals for the clean-energy economy amounts to extracting about five times less matter than what's extracted by the fossil fuel industry. "This is still massive," Calisch says.

Climate impact of clean-energy minerals

EVs already emit less than a third of the emissions per mile than their gasoline counterparts, on average, if you're plugging into America's electricity mix. But what if you account for emissions from mining metals, manufacturing, refueling and disposal of EVs?

Noah Horesh, a researcher at Colorado State University who studies life cycle emissions in the transportation sector, has analyzed vehicles' emissions over their life spans. Horesh estimates fossil fuel vehicles generate roughly twice the emissions of an EV, even accounting for emissions from extracting added minerals and metals.

This difference will only grow as the electricity sector decarbonizes, and battery manufacturing becomes far more efficient. People recharging with clean electricity, or driving smaller vehicles, may already see a bigger difference today.

Air pollution, one of the world's leading killers, will decrease as well. Fossil fuels are responsible for 4 to 8 million excess deaths each year tied to air pollution, report studies in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science and Environmental Research.

A cleaner future for EVs?

Cleaning up the mineral supply chain for batteries, unlike the oil industry, remains a distinct possibility. The Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes automakers to use mineral supply chains in the United States or countries with close trade relations. Mining companies are being pushed, or forced, to clean up their act as buyers, automakers and countries demand more transparent supply chains. New technology is also reducing negative impacts.

None of this is guaranteed. Lead the Charge, an advocacy network tracking the supply chains of the world's leading automakers, says many are making progress on their efforts to eliminate emissions, environmental harms and human rights violations. "But as an industry," it says, "there is a long way to go."

Still, we're starting to see some changes. Researchers and battery makers are racing to replace nickel and cobalt with metals such as manganese and iron that are safer, abundant, nontoxic and cheap.

"There are only a few metals at the intersection of what we can use and what we produce a lot of," says Ceder. "But we're seeing significant progress in that area."

Manufacturers now use six times less cobalt in EV batteries, or have eliminated it entirely in recent years. Last year, half of the vehicles Tesla sold in the first quarter contained batteries with no cobalt or nickel.

Recycling already holds great promise. Today, only about 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries across all products are recycled in the US Within a few decades, according to the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation, the vast majority of EV batteries will likely be collected and repurposed for a second life such as grid energy storage, or recycled, cutting the EV demand for minerals by about a third. Lead-acid car batteries provide a model: an estimated 99 percent are recycled. That has created a nearly closed loop for reusing lead, report researchers in the peer-reviewed journal American Economic Review: Insights.

"The transition to low-carbon fuels is not a magic bullet with no negative outcome, says Sergey Paltsev, a senior research scientist at MIT. "There is no free lunch. But it's much less harmful than if we stay with fossil fuels. That's the conclusion."