Right ways and wrong ways to electrify America
President Biden signed an executive order Thursday that set a goal in which, by 2030, half of all new vehicle sales in the U.S. be electric vehicles (EVs). As the transportation sector generates the largest proportion of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, this announcement matters. Bold, but belated, leadership on electrification is one of many essential steps required to beat climate change.
However, we must move both fast and smart in this EV revolution. There are some major potholes that we must swerve around in this Indy 500 speedway towards making America all-electric.
The case of ocean mining presents perhaps the best example of a major pitfall. Well-financed mining companies are pushing hard to start mining in the ocean. Some of these companies have recently rebranded themselves as climate crusaders and launched PR campaigns advancing the narrative that if we want many more EVs, they must be allowed to mine the oceans to provide minerals for EV batteries.
The potential dangers of ocean mining are many. David Attenborough, the vice president of Fauna & Flora International, described ocean mining as “beyond reason” and highlighted that it may cause “terrible impacts that cannot be reversed.” One leading deep-ocean researcher described ocean mining as having the potential to create “the largest footprint of any single human activity on the planet.” Over 500 scientists recently signed a statement calling out potentially irreversible impacts that ocean mining might have on species extinction, the risks that toxic wastewater plumes from ocean mining could pose to seafood safety and fisheries productivity, and possible negative impacts of mining on the ocean’s capacity to store carbon. Citing similar concerns, over 140 NGOs have called for a stop to ocean mining.
Days after the scientists called for a slowdown in ocean mining — regulators sped up the process. Industry-backed members of the International Seabed Authority triggered the so-called “two-year rule,” an obscure sub-clause that allows groups to submit applications to start ocean mining whether or not mining regulations have been completed in two years’ time.
While the case of ocean mining creates an especially clear portrait of risks to be avoided as we fast-track electrification, there are many other similar instances of potential environmental and social peril that could emerge.
So how do we fight climate change by accelerating electrification — without creating problems with our solutions? There are at least three pathways for action.
First, we must begin a revolution in battery technology. The core link between mass electrification and planetary harm derives from the fact that the battery tech in many EVs, lithium-ion batteries, happens to include building block materials found in sensitive places; e.g. cobalt and lithium. Fundamentally, lithium-ion battery tech was invented in the late 1970s and commercialized 30 years ago. Scientists and engineers are working feverishly to make lithium-ion batteries last generation tech. New announcements emerge constantly detailing promising advances in a range of new battery chemistries that do not depend on these supply-constrained minerals. Progress has also been made reducing concentrations of these metals in lithium-ion batteries themselves. While these innovations are driven more by a desire to produce a cheaper battery, they may unintentionally save deep-ocean octopus and ancient corals — and prevent international showdowns over strategically important minerals. Finding and scaling more sustainable EV batteries with similar performance is a major engineering feat deserving of serious investment from Congress and the White House. It would represent a missing link needed to make the EV revolution green and cheap.
Second, we need to start mining our trash heaps instead of our ecosystems. E-waste contains many of the strategic metals we need to build EVs. Startups, backed by companies like Amazon, see a lucrative opportunity to recover metals from EV batteries. Companies, like Apple, have said they want to end their reliance on mining entirely. Initial commitments in the infrastructure bill to promote EV battery recycling and White House expressions of interest in opening new domestic battery recycling plants are positive first steps but necessitate long-term funding to be successful. Lead-acid car batteries are the most recycled consumer product in the world — hitting near-perfect (i.e. 99 percent) recycling rates in the U.S. That must be our goal for EV batteries.
Third, we need more leadership by industry and government. Major international car companies, like BMW and The Volvo Group, have already called for a moratorium on ocean mining — but U.S.-based EV producers, like Ford, GM and Tesla have thus far been silent.
Small island nations, like Fiji, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea that know the existential perils of climate change well — and the importance of ocean health — have similarly called for a moratorium. Some U.S. states, like Oregon and Washington, have banned ocean mining in state waters. Decision-makers in Washington, D.C, however, have not yet discussed a possible U.S.-led ban on ocean mining — nor have they considered policies prohibiting the import of EVs that include environmentally harmful components. Such policy could be modeled after ongoing discussions led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) about mechanisms to combat illegal deforestation.
Domestic regulatory agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), must also responsibly vet the truths and untruths of companies that claim to be environmental crusaders, but whose business plans entail destroying ecosystems under the guise of advancing electrification.
Lastly, even though the U.S. only has observer status in the International Seabed Authority negotiating process, it must send strong delegations from the State Department and U.S. Geological Service (USGS) that are well-informed in the science underlying the environmental perils of ocean mining. Reports from USGS on ocean mining generated during the Trump administration barely consider environmental impacts, suggesting more attention is needed to this research.
American environmental policy has largely been a history of cleaning up, rather than preventing, predictable environmental disasters. With climate change looming, mass electrification is clearly one of many necessary actions to fight climate change. But let us use this EV sprint to showcase how we can proactively sidestep environmental folly while building, arguably for the first time, an overdue paradigm shift in American infrastructure constructed using economically viable and economically profitable principles of circularity.
Dr. Douglas McCauley is a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, a Sloan Research Fellow in the Ocean Sciences and a member of World Economic Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action. Dr. McCauley has conducted research on ocean and planetary health at UC Berkeley, Stanford and Princeton.