EV Sales Decrease Carbon Emissions But Increase Lithium Needs: Which is Better?

Ben Guess
Updated on Sep 27, 2022 · 4 min read

Key Insights

  • Electric vehicles (EVs) reduce carbon emissions, even when taking different sources of electricity into account.
  • EV production increases the need for lithium mining. Many lithium deposits are in areas experiencing moderate-to-severe drought, and lithium extraction can rely on tens of billions of gallons of water per year.
  • Sustainable lithium extraction methods are being explored, which could improve the overall environmental impact.

Electric vehicles reduce carbon emissions overall — even when considering the sources of electricity

Electric vehicles (EVs) are seen by many as a green alternative to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars due to their role in lowering carbon emissions. Even taking other factors into account, EVs lower carbon emissions. While EV production does result in more emissions than the production of an ICE car, an ICE car will still produce more carbon pollution over its lifetime than an EV. 
This holds true even when taking many different sources of electricity into account. An EV relying on a typical electricity grid in the U.S. — which gets its power from a mix of fossil fuels and renewable power plants — will still have a better impact on the environment than an ICE car. Despite the unavoidable emissions from EV production and charging, EVs reduce carbon emissions and have a largely positive impact on the environment.

While EVs improve the rate of carbon emissions, they also increase the need for lithium

Increased EV sales also result in an increased need for mining EV battery components, such as lithium. Lithium mining relies on tens of billions of gallons of water annually in order to power extraction, making EV production about 50% more water-intensive than ICE car production.
Additionally, many lithium deposits are located in states that are already experiencing drought. A 2020 study looking at sites with deposits or past production of at least 15,000 metric tons of lithium found that two-thirds of those sites were located in California, Nevada, and Utah, all of which are experiencing moderate to exceptional drought. Given how water-intensive lithium extraction is, establishing traditional lithium mines in these states could make these potentially disastrous conditions worse.
Lithium mining can also impact the environment around it. In addition to soaking up precious groundwater, a proposed lithium mine in Nevada would negatively impact the land inhabited by several species of wildlife, including a pair of golden eagles considered sacred to the nearby Paiute and Shoshone tribes. There is also a chance that the mine could contaminate the groundwater it uses with metals like antimony and arsenic — and while the mine would be nearly 50 miles from the nearby Fort McDermitt Indian reservation, some tribe members worry that the contamination could eventually spread to their groundwater, too.

Sustainable methods for lithium extraction are being explored

While traditional lithium mining can have adverse effects on the environment, it is not the only possible method of lithium extraction. Several companies, including Berkshire Hathaway, Controlled Thermal Resources, and Materials Research, are currently exploring the possibility of extracting lithium from brine (a body of saltwater) — something that has been done for ages in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, but not in the U.S. This would be a less expensive alternative to lithium mining, and would require less time for lithium extraction.
Additionally, this lithium extraction method would not have to remove additional groundwater. Instead, the lithium can be taken from a brine source that had already been extracted, preserving the groundwater and preventing further damage to the environment.
Extracting U.S. lithium from brine would also change the current status of near-total reliance on foreign lithium. Instead of relying on Australian, Bolivian, Chilean, or Argentinean lithium — the use of which also contributes to carbon emissions during transportation to EV production sites — extracting lithium from brine would both preserve groundwater and reduce the overall carbon footprint of EV production.

Conclusion

As EV sales consistently increase worldwide, so does the importance of finding ways to reduce the carbon footprint of EV production wherever possible. While EVs are far greener than ICE cars and can significantly reduce the overall amount of carbon emissions, there is still significant room for improvement in some areas of EV production as demand climbs. As sustainable options for metal extraction develop, it will be important to ensure that every aspect of EV production is as green as possible — not just the finished car.

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