Lithium: Not as clean as we thought

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 By Alex Kim

All Electric Ford F-150 Truck at LA Car Show, 2021. Photographed by James Turner. 

While electric cars reduce fossil fuel emissions once they are on the road, the production of the lithium-ion batteries that power them causes more displacement and CO2 emissions than the production of regular gas-powered cars. Disposal of the batteries at the end of their life cycle is also a growing concern.

“There are carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions that come with the process of extraction,” said Zeke Hausfather, a scientist at climate research nonprofit Berkeley Earth told Climate360. “[It’s] not like CO2 comes out of the lithium, but it does take energy to mine things — today many of those systems involve emitting CO2.” Lithium-ion battery mining and production were determined to be worse for the climate than the production of fossil fuel vehicle batteries in an article from The Wall Street Journal.

Cumulative energy demand (CED) measures how much energy is expended in the production of car batteries. According to scientists measure CED, production of the average lithium-ion battery uses three times more electrical energy compared to a generic battery. 

However, once the car batteries are produced, their rate of fossil fuel emissions becomes much lower than a gas-powered car. The U.S. Department of Energy shows that the national averages of fossil fuel emissions for gas-powered cars are more than double the average of that for electric car emissions. This creates the misconception that electric cars are 100% better for the climate than gas-powered cars.

A 2019 study shows that 40% of the total climate impact caused by the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from the mining process itself — a process that Hausfather views as problematic. “As with any mining processes, there is disruption to the landscape,” states Hausfather. “There’s emissions associated with the processes of mining like CO2 emissions creating sulfuric acid and other things used in the mining process — the life cycle of all of these things involves some environmental impact.”

The disposal of these batteries also poses a threat to the climate. Though these batteries contain less toxic waste than other kinds of batteries, a study from Australia found that 98.3% of lithium-ion batteries, not exclusively car batteries, end up in landfills. This massive influx of batteries into landfills significantly increases the likelihood of landfill fires that can burn for years. One landfill in the Pacific Northwest is reported to have seen 124 fires between June 2017 and Dec. 2020 due to lithium-ion batteries. Consequently, fires are becoming increasingly more common, with 21 fires reported on the site in 2018, rising to 47 by 2020.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lithium-ion batteries and devices should not be disposed of in household garbage or recycling bins, rather they should be taken to a certified battery electronics recycler and disposed of there. They advise that each battery and/or device should be placed in separate plastic bags, with non-conductive tape over their terminals; in most cases, lithium-ion batteries have three. Dr. Florian Knobloch, a policy advisor at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, suggests a change in policy in how we globally dispose of these batteries.

“The system must be set up in a way in which you as a customer don’t have to question [where to dispose of your batteries] at all,” Knobloch told Climate360. “It should be a no-brainer. When you return your car, [the company should] send it back to the manufacturer or scrapyard … It’s a system that needs work, and individual people need to get involved.” As it stands, households that improperly dispose of these batteries, often classified as “hazardous waste,” do not fall under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); therefore they are exempt from hazardous waste regulations.

While lithium-ion batteries power some common items like cars, scooters, vapes and phones, the notion that they don’t pose a threat to the global climate crisis is misleading. Mining, extraction, production and improper disposal all play a role in the encroaching threat of climate change, especially given the volume of these batteries’ life cycles. Until federal legislation is placed upon households to discourage improper disposal, or more recycling companies and organizations give consumers proper instructions on how to dispose of their batteries, lithium-ion will continue to grow and burn quietly in the background.

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