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More than a billion tonnes of climate pollution pours out American tailpipes every year. For scale, that's more than the combined emissions from the 100 least-polluting nations.

Ending this gargantuan climate pollution disaster will require a sharp increase in new lithium extraction to build the zero-emission alternatives — battery electric vehicles. A new report by the University of California, Davis and the Climate and Community Project (CCP) reveals just how much more lithium will be needed.

The CCP report calculates the lithium required to transition the entire United States passenger car fleet to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) by 2050. They evaluated several policy scenarios showing which would increase demand for lithium above "status quo" and which would dramatically reduce the amount needed. If you are interested in the environmental and social impacts of a rapid increase in lithium extraction — and the policies needed to reduce that harm — I recommend reading the CCP report.

In this article, I will focus on the other side of the coin, which the report didn't cover — the status quo gasoline alternative that Americans and Canadians buy today. I'll highlight the lithium numbers from the report to give a sense of the gargantuan scale of gasoline extraction today. (Note: In this article, I use the term "gasoline" to refer to both gasoline and diesel road fuels.)

Lithium versus gasoline per car

My first graphic compares the amount of lithium required for each new BEV to the amount of gasoline required for each new internal combustion engine car (ICEV).

Lithium per BEV compared to gasoline per ICEV

The CCP study found that the average new BEV bought in the United States requires eight kilograms of lithium. That's the orange bar on the left of the graphic.

All that lithium currently needs to come from new lithium extraction. However, the CCP study found this amount could be reduced dramatically in the future. For example, policies requiring lithium recycling and smaller batteries per vehicle could cut new lithium needed to as low as two kilograms per BEV by 2050.

In comparison, the average new fossil-burning passenger vehicle bought in Canada and the United States needs 20 tonnes of gasoline to move around. This is shown by the stack of oil barrels on the right. This gasoline weighs 10 times more than the car itself. And it's 2,500 times more massive than the lithium needed for each BEV.

Ending the climate pollution disaster created by burning fossil fuels for vehicles will require a sharp increase in new lithium extraction to make vehicle batteries. @bsaxifrage writes for @NatObserver #lithium #EVs

All that gasoline must be extracted from the earth and refined as well. For example, much of the gasoline used in Canada and the U.S. comes from Alberta's gigantic bitumen mines with their sprawling, toxic tailings lagoons.

Unsurprisingly, extracting and refining huge amounts of gasoline results in huge amounts of climate pollution as well.

Climate pollution

My second graphic compares the emissions from making gasoline and batteries.

Lifecycle emissions to make BEV battery and ICEV gasoline

The numbers come from a recent life-cycle analysis of BEVs and ICEVs by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

The small blue bar on the left shows the climate pollution from making a battery for the average new BEV.

The lithium component is only around three per cent. It's shown by the thin orange part on the top.

The tall grey bar on the right is the gasoline needed for the average new ICEV in the United States or Canada. As you can see, just making gasoline causes four times more climate pollution than making a BEV battery.

Plus, this assumes the battery is scrapped when the car is. But the ICCT analysis says the average BEV battery still has about half its useful life remaining when the car itself wears out. As a result, many BEV batteries are getting reused to store electricity. This second use is reducing fossil fuel burning even further by allowing higher percentages of renewable energy in the electricity mix. If you include this second career for batteries in the life cycle analysis, then some of the battery emissions currently assigned to the BEV phase get shifted to that use.

In addition, recycling batteries can shrink their emissions even further. The CCP report and the ICCT analysis project large future declines in extraction impacts and life-cycle climate pollution from robust battery recycling.

Gasoline for the entire American car fleet

So far, we've looked at amounts per vehicle. My final chart totals those up for the quarter billion passenger vehicles in the United States.

Gasoline burning by American passenger cars since 1990 vs Lithium needed in 2050 for BEVs

The black line on the top shows the amount of gasoline burned each year by all light-duty passenger vehicles in the United States — cars, vans, SUVs and pickup trucks.

They currently burn 350 million tonnes of gasoline per year. That's roughly a tonne of gasoline per American — extracted, refined, and burned every year.

According to the CCP report, to eliminate all that gasoline, lithium mining will need to rise to 0.3 million tonnes per year by 2050. That's shown by the orange dot in the lower right.

That's assuming the report's "status quo" scenario in which current BEVs simply replace all gasoline cars, without any change in recycling, battery size, or car ownership rates.

The CCP report questions whether lithium production can increase that much in the next 30 years. I don't know the details of lithium mining. But as the chart shows, in the last 30 years, gasoline extraction rose 100 times more than that. Humans, unfortunately, have proven to be remarkably capable of digging up what we want without enough regard for the consequences.

So, I applaud the CCP report for calling attention to the potential harms of the coming lithium boom. It points to the negative environmental and social impacts that come with all mining. And it highlights specific concerns with some of the planned lithium mining — including water scarcity, international conflicts, and trampling of Indigenous rights. I hope we adopt many of the CCP's policy recommendations to lessen those damages.

At the same time, I think it is critical to also inform the public about the many benefits that will come if we can rapidly eliminate climate pollution. In this case, those benefits include a massive decrease in the extraction of raw materials and the elimination of toxic automobile smog from our cities. And, of course, we gain a shot at passing along a decent and livable future for generations to come.

Right now, however, we are losing that climate fight. Badly.

When it comes to buying a new car, Americans and Canadians are still choosing fossil fuel burners 94 per cent of the time. That's well above even the global average. Our current preferences for gasoline burners are locking us into decades of massive gasoline demand, and all the harms that come with extracting and burning it.

And globally, fossil fuel burning and climate pollution just hit a record high. The atmospheric concentration of all three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — are also at record highs, and accelerating upwards.

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For those wanting more details on gasoline and its climate impacts, here are some notes and links:

  • Canadians buy the world's most climate-polluting new cars and trucks. The average new one emits ~200 gCO2 per kilometre. That's 60 tonnes of CO2 out the tailpipe over the lifespan of a car (~200,000 miles).
  • The oil industry really likes selling 20 tonnes of its product to the average Canadian car owner. At the pump, that's ~27,000 litres, which costs ~$40,000 at current gas prices. What the industry really doesn't like are BEVs. Each one sold in Canada reduces the oil industry's future sales by that same amount. So it isn't surprising disinformation campaigns attacking BEVs are common.
  • It costs a lot less to fuel a BEV with electricity. How much less? A rough rule of thumb is that two kilowatt-hours will drive as far as one litre of gasoline. For example, if you live in Montreal, you can charge your BEV at home for around $0.14 per litre equivalent. That is just a 10th of the cost of gasoline. As a huge bonus, made-in-Quebec electricity is essentially zero-emissions. So, BEV owners there can save 90 per cent on fuel while also helping to eliminate the biggest source of emissions in Canada — the extraction, refining and use of gasoline and diesel fossil fuels.
  • Coal-burning power plants get a lot of bad climate press. And for a good reason. Less well known, however, is the fact that gasoline-burning vehicles are far worse. Vehicle engines emit far more CO2 than coal power plants to produce each unit of usable energy. In climate speak, gasoline engines are more CO2-intensive.
  • The reason burnermobiles are so climate dirty is because they are massively inefficient. They use just 20 per cent of the energy in gasoline. Because they waste 80 per cent of the energy, burnermobile owners must buy five times more gasoline energy than is needed to move their car around. BEVs, in contrast, are super-efficient, using up to 90 per cent of the energy put into them. As a result, BEV drivers only need to buy a quarter as much energy per kilometre as gasoline drivers do. Buying so much less energy saves a lot of money.
  • For the carbon math nerds out there, a quick way to calculate gasoline usage is to work backwards from CO2 emissions. Multiply the weight of CO2 emissions by 0.33 to get the weight of gasoline burned. For example, Canada lists emissions from light-duty vehicles at 90 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Working backwards yields 30 million tonnes of gasoline being burned (90 * 0.33 = 30). (Note: CO2 emissions are heavier than the gasoline because burning adds two oxygen atoms from the air to every carbon atom in the gasoline.)

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@ Jillian Lynn Lawson

It escapes any rational observer to conjure a way for anyone to avoid mining, cities, landscape impacts and Indigenous rights when commenting online from a computer full of aluminum, plastic and rare metals, and transmitted through thousands of km of wire or satellite dishes supported by steel structures, or need the essential medical facilities and services offered only in doctor's offices and clinics located in cities. Ditto clothing, housing, food, most work endeavours and transport.

It's not an either / or choice. I believe that less can be more -- much more -- when it's intelligently calculated and used. Therein cities offer far greater per person carbon, energy and land area savings in all aspects of life compared to suburbs, small towns and rural acreages. It could be much better, and that's where sustainability must play a larger role. See further comments below.

Denying the efficacy of cities is similar to the now standard fossil industry's PR quips on Canada having only 2% of world CO2 emissions, so, like let's continue to enjoy the party until the rest of the world ramps it down. Meanwhile, on a per capita basis, Canadians, who comprise 0.005% of the world's population, are the pigs of the planet when it comes to emissions, twice as polluting as northern European nations that have more advanced and compact urban and intercity infrastructure. Canada must cut it's per capita emissions in half at the very least, and the majority of that work will occur in cities where a light rail train can displace 300+ cars, and where 10,000 solar roofs can power entire neighbourhoods over very short grid distances.

The comment on Indigenous rights and intact landscapes rings true regarding the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs and their stance on the GasLink pipeline in their pristine wilderness territory, but they are also in conflict with the elected chiefs and councils who outnumber them. The preservation vs economic divide remains unresolved. In my view gas needs to be wound down everywhere. But not geothermal, wind and solar and their related electricity transmission corridors, which can be located a lot closer to users.

But it is puzzling where the sentiment would be applicable to the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations which are deeply involved as full partners with the federal government via the Canada Lands Company in very dense urban development projects in several sites in Vancouver (also with the Sarcee in Calgary, one of several more examples of direct First Nation involvement in urban development).

Barry just does excellent graphics visuals, many congratulations.

I admit I barely skim these articles, because the numbers are so duh-obvious; I read the headline and go, 'That even needs to be proven???'. I've been at this too long.

A classic of the genre, which, honestly, could darn near replace this article with one jaw-dropping picture, is here:

Another very well researched and beautifully illustrated article by Barry Saxifrage. Kudos!

Lithium does have the advantage of higher energy density than most other battery tech out there designated for transportation and small electronic devices. I agree with the premise that lithium will not replace 100% of gasoline and diesel fuels. But I also subscribe to the premise, as espoused by Australian transportation planner Jeff Kenworthy that the world has likely seen peak car use in or around 2015. He actually did the math and found that a plateau in the worldwide number of cars developed after many Asian cities (led by China) built out mass transit. There are still a horrendous number of cars on the roads, but their numbers are now being limited.

What this tells us is that lithium will have its limitations as the number of cars is reduced across Asia and the EU, largely because of the expansion of predominantly urban rail infrastructure within the footprint of the cities. In addition, electrified high capacity and high speed rail between cities has also reduced or limited not just highway travel by private car, but short and medium-haul flights. Canada, please pay attention.

Lithium, cobalt and nickel are also seen as expensive and dangerous metals in large-scale battery storage farms. Lithium ion batteries sometime have dendrites growing inside that penetrates the electrolyte and causes a sudden short circuit and a raging fire. Tesla offers this tech for wind and solar projects, but the banks of batteries must be expensively cooled and fire suppression systems put in place.

The latest emerging battery tech now being commercialized stays away from lithium and uses far cheaper and more common metals and materials like iron, metallic calcium, magnesium, sodium, zinc, gels and so forth. These batteries can be stacked together to scale them up to meet huge grid-sized demand. They can balance out the intermittency of wind, solar and tides to produce stable baseload power.

As such, it is possible to reduce the future demand for lithium with public transport, better urbanism, limiting lithium to commercial and transit vehicles and small electronics as much as possible, and staying away from large-scale stationary power storage. I also believe economics and mandatory recycling will have a positive effect to limit new lithium mines coming on stream.

As multiple people have pointed out, comparing just the manufacturing lithium requirements of an EV with the entire running requirements of an ICE is not a meaningful comparison. Barry says the goal was "to give readers a sense of the vast scale of gasoline mining/extraction", so please talk also about the vast scale of metals and minerals needed to build an EV.

Here is a short and credible argument as to why a transition to renewable energy can't happen any time soon, because the world doesn't have the mining capacity to produce the metals and minerals needed:

"Mark Mills: The energy transition delusion: inescapable mineral realities"


- Electric vehicles need a LOT of metals not needed by fossil fuel vehicles
- There just aren't enough mines to supply all this new metal
- Developing new mines takes decades, not years
- The environmental impact of the mines is problematic

Therefore an "energy transition" just can't happen any time soon. The price of minerals and metals needed for renewable energy systems must inevitably skyrocket as demand exceeds capacity.

His talk also includes the point that electric vehicles generate a lot more carbon to manufacture than fossil-fuel vehicles, so it can take tens of thousands of miles/km of driving before the electric vehicles recover that carbon and start to do good for the planet.

I've seen the EV vehicle vs. fossil-fuel vehicle carbon saving graph (at 26m41s) in other talks. His break-even point crosses at about 60,000 miles. The break-even point for Canada may be sooner, if it's true that most of our electricity comes from low-carbon sources, but it doesn't solve the mining problem.

In the past three months I have come across info that elucidates how lithium prices plummeted in light of the latest battery chemistry now being introduced by China's CATL, the largest battery plant in the world. Enter sodium. Much, much more prevalent and cheaper than lithium. Sodium ion batteries are achieving energy densities greater than lithium ion (with cobalt and nickel) or today's more common and safer lithium ion phosphate. Sodium with a smaller amount of lithium has excellent cold weather performance an offers lots more range

We can't forget that batteries are as vital to renewable power as they are to mobility, including busses.

In addition, every gas tank eliminated is thousands of litres of gasoline NOT burned every year. Worldwide about one million barrels of oil was displaced by EVs, which now comprise 20% of new car sales.

This positive trend can be boosted further with more transit and better urban zoning.