Opinion: Let’s be honest, batteries are bad for the environment

Batteries will play an important role in decarbonisation, but by ignoring their social and environmental costs, governments and investors will only exacerbate these problems.

The proliferation of electric batteries in the automotive and power sectors could be one of the most important tools in the fight against climate change.

The world’s leading carmakers have gone from dipping a toe in the electric vehicle (EV) market to what will lead to an explosion of EV manufacturing in Europe and elsewhere.

Driven by legislation and changing consumer and investor sentiment, the gradual phasing out of the internal combustion engine (ICE) removes one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions from the global energy system.

However, we cannot simply ignore the significant social and environmental cost of all this battery manufacturing. At a time when governments are introducing taxonomies for sustainable finance, the negative impacts of battery production need to be fully considered.

Yet the problems of electric battery production have been little discussed by governments and seem likely to worsen as battery production accelerates.

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Batteries provide solutions to many energy problems

If climate goals are to be met, the transportation sector needs to be overhauled.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is responsible for 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 95% of the energy for transportation comes from petroleum-based fuels. Road transport accounted for more than 40% of all oil demand in 2019.

Replacing ICEs with EVs that run on lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, or, eventually, solid-state batteries is part of the solution. Batteries can also play a role in other forms of transportation, such as rail.

Similarly, batteries are set to play an essential role in making electricity supplies carbon-free, addressing the impermanence of renewable energy by storing electricity from the grid. Electricity and heat generation are responsible for 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The number of utility-scale battery storage facilities is also now spread around the world and is set to grow over the next decade.

carbon emissions from batteries

Yet the change to batteries will not completely eliminate carbon emissions, at least not at first.
While EVs on the road have a net-negative effect on carbon emissions, their production is carbon-intensive. Research by Beryls Strategy Advisors found that manufacturing an electric car battery weighing 500 kg emits 74% more carbon dioxide than the production of a conventional car in Germany.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research estimates that a mid-range EV car with a 40 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery purchased in Germany in 2019 will need 52,000 km before its lifetime emissions fall below that of a comparable diesel or petrol vehicle. will need to drive. , For a luxury EV with a bigger battery (120kWh) that extends up to 230,000km.

The carbon emissions associated with EVs will depend on the energy mix of the country in which they are manufactured and operated. If most of that country’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels, that vehicle’s carbon footprint would be large.

Most EV batteries are manufactured in countries such as China, Thailand, Germany and Poland, which all run on large amounts of non-renewable sources of electricity. Even EVs manufactured in the most renewable energy-dependent countries will be exported and charged to countries that still burn fossil fuels for electricity.

This continued link to fossil fuels is often, unconvincingly, used as an argument against the widespread adoption of EVs. Yes, the electricity going into the vehicle may not be 100% green, but the emissions saved from the exhaust pipes make EVs less carbon-intensive once on the road than internal combustion engines. It’s also a problem that should lessen over time, as more grids around the world run on renewable energy (thanks in part to battery storage).

Environmental and social costs of battery manufacturing

Of greater concern are the environmental and social costs of extraction and processing of minerals required for battery manufacturing.

Lithium mining from salt brine in South America is associated with concerns of contaminating local water basins and the freshwater salinization required by local communities. Cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has widely reported issues with child labor, environmental damage and toxic pollution leading to birth defects in the local population.

In fact, mining of all minerals involved in battery production, nickel, manganese and graphite, raises social and environmental concerns. Often it is the only mining companies tracking the effects of such mining.

Research from the Netherlands-based not-for-profit SOMO estimates that the DRC produces 70% of the world’s cobalt, and China produces 68% of its graphite. While Australia leads the market for lithium production with a share of 62%, China holds more than half of the global lithium reserves.

China dominates the production of components for Li-ion batteries, produces 61% cathode materials for EVs and 83% anodes in 2019, and is the undisputed leader in cell manufacturing with 73% market share.

SOMO’s research also shows that, based on estimates from the Global Battery Alliance, a public-private partnership under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, future earnings will be very unevenly distributed across the Li-ion supply chain. Upstream multinationals involved in mass-producing battery cells and EVs will capture most of the value, while those involved in mining and recycling will receive only a fraction of the earnings.

According to the Global Battery Alliance, by 2030 the volume of raw material extraction will exceed 300 Great Pyramids of Giza per year, while the required refinery will weigh more than 110,000 Boeing 787 Dreamliners per year.

This surprising demand for materials is driving the efforts of mining companies to seek new frontiers, not least through deep-sea mining, a nascent industry that can have dire environmental consequences.

The mining industry has a poor record when it comes to human rights and environmental crimes. This anticipated explosion of extraction, especially in countries with a poor record of preventing such crimes, should give everyone pause for consideration.

Recycling and Reusing Batteries

Some see recycling and reuse as the answer to these issues. If we could recycle the greater amount of batteries produced, the world would need far less battery production. Once they have reached the end of their original application, batteries generally retain significant capacity, creating a significant market for reuse, while parts of spent batteries can be recycled. can go.

Circular Energy Storage forecasts that in 2025 all major Li-ion battery markets will have a recycling capacity that significantly exceeds the supply of waste batteries.

The amount of Li-on batteries entering the global market is difficult to quantify, but research and consulting company Circular Energy Storage estimated in a 2021 report that the market has grown by 720% since 2009. The amount of cells entering the global market has increased by just 16% between 2018 and 2019.

This appears to create significant opportunities for recycling companies, but there is no bonus of used batteries emerging on the horizon. Half of all EV batteries will reach the end of their life after only 15 years, and manufacturers are constantly working on ways to extend the life of the product.

Therefore the increase in available batteries for recycling will be much slower than the installed capacity. Building recycling capacity would require high upfront investment, while end-of-life batteries would have low value, and would insufficient scale for capacity building.

Add to this that the recycling of materials such as lithium is complex because it is toxic and highly reactive, and that recycled materials are more expensive than their mined counterparts on commodity exchanges, and it would be difficult to build a recycling industry on the scale needed to reduce . Mining operations around the world.

Circular Energy Storage forecasts that in 2025 all major Li-ion battery markets will have recycling capacity that significantly exceeds the supply of waste batteries, but that significant new capacity will be needed by 2030 as more batteries reach the end of life.

Yet this analysis only considers batteries that have been submitted for recycling. SOMO estimates that globally only 5% of end-of-life batteries are recycled.

Battery problem solution

According to some, this increasing environmental risk is not worth the benefits that widespread electric battery deployment will bring.

The SOMO report argues that we should not broadly expand the use of batteries in private vehicles, focusing on reducing car use and increasing public transport.

Despite the growing enthusiasm from carmakers, governments and consumers for EVs, it may be too late to put the cork back in this bottle.

Instead, we need to be more honest about the problems posed by battery production to try to solve them.

Many pioneered the advancement of solid-state batteries, some with prototyping techniques that promise better performance without the use of cobalt or nickel. Although this solution reduces the battery problem to wasteful practices in places like the DRC, the challenge is much more than that.

Lithium will continue to be a fundamental component of the world’s batteries for the foreseeable future, especially given its global abundance.

We need stronger global legislation on the purchase and reuse of natural resources, greater public awareness of the environmental challenges posed by large-scale battery manufacturing, and stronger incentives for the recycling industry.

Every public policy document about the benefits of electric batteries that doesn’t address its costs is hurting environmental efforts.

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