Batteries are very practical for small devices; but our massive demand for larger batteries will, over the next decades, ruin the environment via mineral mining.

The needs of a fast-growing battery economy…

We are currently producing the overwhelming majority of our battery needs via freshly-mined minerals/ores — trend increasing. Even if battery recycling were to increase greatly, it would not satisfy the growing demand. We would still need to mine more „ingredients“. For decades to come we would be churning up the Earth to get at what we need.

Even battery recycling is facing serious challenges, as a recent paper published by researchers in materials science and environmental sustainability in the peer-review journal Battery Energy, notes: „Even though the black mass (BM) industry is expected to expand with rapidly increasing sales of electric vehicle (EV) batteries, the most sustainable circular recycling strategies are still far from being marketable.“

Black mass, a variable mixture of recovered materials from end-of-life batteries, is not the largest problem; but rather developing processes for different kinds of black mass (different battery types, have different constituents), and extracting high percentages of metals economically and cleanly.

However, here’s the bottom line: even if recycling becomes much better, we will, for many decades to come, need freshly-mined metallic ingredients in massive quantities.

Batteries are practical for some applications, but not for others…

The challenges for batteries, in terms of practicability, also grow with the size of the object in which they are applied. So far, there are no serious attempts at making long-distance airliners with battery power and electric motors: the energy-density of batteries is still far too low to provide the necessary energy and low weight needed for take-off and long-distance travel. Large ships would also need to sacrifice a sizeable extra load-carrying capacity if they were battery-electric.

On land, battery-electric vehicles are easy to realize, but are they really better in all respects than their combustion engine counterparts? Here greater load-carrying also increases the challenges for battery power, particularly in long-haul trucks. A 44-tonne articulated lorry (semi), if battery-electric, would sacrifice around 2.7 tonnes of freight compared with its diesel counterpart: that’s 16% of its goods in weight.

Revealing the CO2 emissions impact of battery-powered vehicles globally…

In environmental terms, battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are superior to combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) if they are driven relatively high yearly mileages. But even if we imagine comparing total CO2 emissions of comparable cars — BEVs with ICEVs using fossil fuel — the break-even point at present global energy mixes is way above what most people drive in a single car’s lifetime:

At zero km, only the DIFFERENCE in CO2 emissions between ICEV and BEV is used to start the plot: the BEV has much greater CO2 emissions in manufacture (values from global energy mixes). Up to a TOTAL travelled distance of around 570,000 km, the ICEV is responsible for less CO2 emissions than that BEV — on global energy mixes. The break-even point for a BEV running on European Union electricity mix would be somewhere around 130,000 km; on US electricity mix, in the region of 200,000 km. Below these break-even points, the ICEV running on fossil fuel produces less CO2 cumulatively across its chain of manufacture and use than the BEV.
Calculation methodology and ancillary values in The Decarbonization Delusion.

Revealing the environmental impact of battery-powered vehicles globally: worse than e-fuels…

Reductions in CO2 emissions from charging electricity for BEVs are happening, and we hope that we will reach zero fast. However, even then, the challenges are far from finished: we must see the environment as a whole, and not just the climate and greenhouse gas emissions.

At global average mileages, it is unlikely that BEVs beat conventional cars on the whole — because of their greatly higher environmental impact during production. Compared with conventional cars running on e-fuel, they perform even worse in environmental impact. This is measured as the rate at which species would be expected to go extinct (species*years) from the impact:

Here we are considering whole global economies of car manufacture and driving, using a one-year window moving through time. Vehicle numbers for 2030 are from the International Energy Agency: 140,000,000 BEVs on the roads; 35,000,000 produced in that year; thought experiment based on replacing those numbers of BEVs with either full-hybrids or ICEVs running of e-fuel. All energies (for manufacture and driving) for all cars are envisaged as CO2-neutral. Identities of the vehicles compared: BEV: 50 kWh battery of type Li-NMC; electricity consumption: 20 kWh / 100 km (including conservative estimates for all energy losses in production, distribution, charging, discharging of electricity); ICEV: gasoline consumption 5 L / 100 km WLTP e-gasoline, produced at 45% efficiency, synthesis plant->tank; Fyhb. (full-hybrid ICEV/EV) with gasoline ICE plus 1.6 kWh battery of type Li-NMC; gasoline consumption: 4.5 L / 100 km WLTP e-gasoline, produced at 45% efficiency, synthesis plant->tank. Up to 31,000 km per vehicle per year, the full-hybrid economy is less harmful to the environment than the BEV; up to 27,500 km per vehicle per year, the ICEV using e-fuel is less harmful to the environment than the BEV. For comparison, average global driving per year considered to be roughly 12,000 km. Fuel consuption values and e-fuel production efficiency from Audi AG (internal data, 2024) and from FVV Energy for a Moving Society (Study 2022). Calculation framework ReCiPe (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and Environment). Scenario and modelling The Decarbonization Delusion.

The battery electric vehicle economy does not, on the whole, improve global human health…

The break-even points with respect to total human health impact throughout the global population are — according to my analyses — even larger than those for environmental impact. This is measured by the effect on human health in disease/disability-affected life years (DALY):

Data sources and methodology (i.e. model published in The Decarbonization Delusion, applying impact calculation framework ReCiPe) identical to previous plot. For reference, a current ICEV using fossil fuel is included to bring out the upper boundary of the likely break-even region: the human health impact of the fossil-burning ICEV rises much more steeply than that of the other vehicles because of the environmental and human-health impact of fossil fuel mining. The proportion of impact due to burning of the fuel in modern engines with catalytic converters and particle filters is considered very small in comparison. For that reasonn, the likely break-even points transpire as follows: Up to 170,000 km per vehicle per year, the full-hybrid (Fhyb.) vehicle is less harmful than the BEV; up to 157,000 km per year, the ICEV using e-fuel is less harmful than the BEV. For comparison, average global driving per year considered to be roughly 12,000 km.

Why do these results surprise many people? Largely because the massive impacts of the electric vehicle during production (full-chain analysis from ore-mining through to the finished driveable product) are neglected or greatly underestimated:

Breakdown of contributors to environmental and human health impact of the car manufacture and driving economy. Up to the point of the finished product, ready to drive, a typical battery-electric vehicle produced with global energy mixes and manufacturing practices has at least twice the energy-, environment- and human-health impact as a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV). Nickel as a percentage of a typical BEV battery is rising steeply, and nickel requires 4.5 times as much energy as aluminium per kg refined metal to produce. Open cast nickel mines in Indonesia are already destroying larger areas of primary forest. Furthermore, the recycling percentage by mass (weight in kg) of ICEVs is very high — up to 90% in most categories of metals used; however, that of BEVs is substantially lower on account of the battery material and increased mass of electronics. Battery recycling is relatively incomplete and very costly in comparison. Traditional vehicle recycling is described by a massive analytical literature; that of BEVs is lagging far behind the production rates both in theory and in practice.

Government policy is not necessarily in line with technology developments…

The irony of the situation is the following: in many industrial countries, governments are (supposed to be) encouraging people to use public transport more, and the car less. EVs would, in this scenario, only be advisable if they were pool cars that were driven much more of the time than at present. Hence they would cover — per vehicle — much higher distances than at present. But would the car industry „buy into“ such a scenario? After all, it would mean a large reduction in the production of new cars…

Might the sustainability of EVs improve in the near future?

Is it possible that the blue line in the plots above — representing the BEV — will move lower, indicating less environmental impact? That would allow the BEV to reach break-even with the ICEV using e-fuels at a lower distance driven. i.e. could the following happen?

This is unlikely in the foreseeable future because:
– 80% of the energy in the full-chain process of battery manufacture is thermal energy, currently from fossil fuels, and hard to de-fossilize;
– Mining is a relatively „mature“ industry, where few large improvements are likely to arise unless „revolutionary“ new methods are introduced;
– Even more lithium is being mined from rock-ore, requiring 2.5 times as much energy and fresh water than obtaining lithium from brines;
– Open-cast mining for nickel is growing, and has a much larger environmental impact than deep-rock mining;
– Nickel demand for batteries, as a proportion of their required material composition is growing;
– Deep sea mining threatens to start in the foreseeable future, accompanied by impacts on almost completely-unresearched ecosystems.

Intuitive problems of sustainability, and dangers of environmental hypocricy…

Why does the sustainability of the current BEV economy look so doubtful? The intuitive reason is:

And the concentration of ore/mineral mining, and its impacts, is mostly far-removed from the consumers, who believe that they are doing something good…

We must not fall into the trap of environmental hypocrisy… There’s a fitting idiom „driving out the devil(s) with beelzebub“; in this case, fossil reserve mining with mineral and ore mining. If we’re not the ones in contact with beelzebub, metaphorically-speaking, can we ethically support such action? Furthermore, the environments being destroyed are parts of global ecologies that sustain us all…

Further reading:

> Reviving spent lithium-ion batteries: The advancements and challenges of sustainable black mass recovery
> Guardian newspaper article 2024 on UN report highlighting impacts of expanding raw material extraction
> On the environmental AND financial impact of deep sea mining
> On the destruction of primary forests via open cast nickel ore mining
> Analysis of break-even points between battery electric vehicles and fossil-fuel burning vehicles to discover the parts of the systems most sensitive to improvement

Copyright Andrew Moore 2024