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The hidden environmental costs of transitioning to electric vehicles


The Biden administration is trying to move Americans away from gas-powered cars, but replacing every internal combustion engine with a battery brings its own environmental cost. A new report outlines some possible solutions. Thea Riofrancos is a political science professor at Providence College and lead author of the report "Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility And Less Mining." She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Thanks so much for having me.

RASCOE: Tell us more about these electric batteries. Like, they do produce lower emissions to power a vehicle. But there is an environmental impact to producing the actual batteries, right?

RIOFRANCOS: Right. So we have these supply chains around the world that are involved in order to produce the materials for our batteries. And batteries require lots of different mined materials. We focus on lithium. And when we look at the impacts of that mining, we see a lot of concerning effects, right? We see impacts on water systems where there's water use by lithium mining or contamination of water. We see impacts on biodiversity. We also see concerning social impacts such as Indigenous peoples in Latin America that haven't been fully consulted before these large-scale mining projects were built and started to affect their territory as well as culturally sensitive sites. This is not just an issue for the rest of the world - right? - impacts that are far away beyond our borders. The Biden administration has a major goal of increasing mining for so-called critical minerals here in the United States.

RASCOE: And so how much increased lithium demand could we see by 2050?

RIOFRANCOS: If today's demand for electric vehicles - if we project that outward to 2050, for just the U.S. EV market alone, not taking into account any other country in the world, just the U.S. EV market alone would need triple the amount of lithium currently produced for the entire global market. And that means a lot more individual lithium mines, each of them carrying their own impacts in environmental and social terms.

RASCOE: Well, I have to ask you, then, because I'm sure some listeners will be thinking this, is - OK, so we're told gas-powered cars - they're bad. Now, we're being told electric cars - well, they've got their issues. It seems like you're darned if you do, you darned if you don't. How do we get around?

RIOFRANCOS: I think that we need to think more expansively about mobility. Do we kind of stay with the status quo, or do we take this opportunity to say, yes, we absolutely need EVs, right? But we can also expand other transportation options - buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, cycling, walking.

RASCOE: Even when I was covering, you know, energy for a long time, the issues with getting people to get electric vehicles, they said, was that Americans want to feel like they can jump in their car, and they can drive across the country if they need to. How do you change that mindset to people, like, just want to be able to - I want to have my own vehicle. I want to go where I want to go.

RIOFRANCOS: I think that there are different solutions depending on what the main issue we want to address is, right? We could stay with as many cars as we have - right? - with the same car dependency, the same - that's how we get around. But we just get off of this trend of the huge electric SUVs. The US, like, battery size for our EVs is double what it was 10 years ago.

RASCOE: And that requires more lithium.

RIOFRANCOS: More lithium. Right. So if we can get to even where we were a few years ago in battery size, we would be on a better track. We also can get around in these other ways, though, right? In the year 2050, if we can increase other mobility options - build out more bus lanes, right? Get folks into safe walking and cycling, right? If we can increase recycling of batteries and recover those materials, we can see 92% less lithium required in our best case scenario, the future I just laid out, versus the worst case. And so there's a lot to be gained by taking this moment of addressing the climate crisis to think more holistically about the design of our transportation sector and have the goal of maximum mobility for all and the goal of also addressing the harms of mining before they get to even more concerning levels.

RASCOE: That's Thea Riofrancos, lead author of the new report "Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility And Less Mining" from the Climate and Community Project and the University of California, Davis. Thank you.

RIOFRANCOS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.