We Won’t Need More Lithium for EVs if We Just Ban Cars (and the Suburbs) Instead

Photo Credit: Getty

Seaver Wang of the Breakthrough Institute published a fascinating analysis recently on the need for more mining and resource development in order to fuel future expansion of renewable energy technology. We often hear that we’re heading toward a decarbonized future, and that everything from stovetops to cars are going to be electrified. This is usually presented as an environmental imperative, specifically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on climate change. 

In order to make the things associated with that transition, however – from windmill towers to the batteries in electric vehicles – we’re going to need lots of additional mineral resources, from copper to lithium to cobalt. And we’re not going to be able to order all of that from an Amazon warehouse. It’s going to need to be located by geologists and engineers, dug up out of the earth by heavy machinery, transported, smelted and refined, and packed and shipped again to where it’s actually needed. All of those steps are themselves energy intensive and high impact. And they’re exactly the kinds of activities that environmentalists have historically opposed.

Wang cites a recent report on the future of lithium mining in particular that attempts to reckon with this issue. The authors warn about the environmental and social impact of large mining operations and suggest that instead of expanding mining to meet projected levels of consumption for electric vehicles in the U.S., we implement government policies to reduce the future demand for vehicles themselves. Wang summarizes:

The study finds that a combination of a highly ambitious migration of the U.S. population to medium-density communities, a shift to smaller EV batteries, aggressive battery recycling measures, and policy efforts to improve mass transit and incentivize biking and walking could reduce cumulative 2020-2050 lithium demand in U.S. light-duty vehicles by up to 66%, and 2050 annual lithium demand by up to 92% relative to a status-quo scenario.

That’s an interesting alternative, and one government planners are no doubt excited to contemplate. But it’s also one that’s very troubling to anyone who likes the idea of being able to make their own lifestyle and consumption choices. In order to achieve just this one specific goal – limiting the expansion of lithium mining and its impacts – we would need to change where tens of millions of Americans live, how they would travel, and how far they’d be able to go. Reports like this often talk in very vague terms about driving behavioral changes with various “incentives.” They are also generally short on details regarding what penalties would exist for those who declined to be so incentivized.  

Advocates of bicycle riding, for example, have predicted for decades that it’s only a matter of time until large percentages of Americans give up their gas guzzling automobiles and embrace the healthy and invigorating practice of cycling to work every day. Dozens of cities have spent billions of dollars over the past half century building bike paths, bike lanes, bike share programs, and assorted other cycling infrastructure. Yet the eager cycling hordes never seem to appear. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that a grand total of 0.6% of Americans biked to work, the same number as a similar report in 2014. That’s not a very impressive return on investment. The John Locke Foundation’s Julie Tisdale wrote a skeptical case study on this issue in 2016, for example, looking at taxpayer dollars spent on bicycle policy in North Carolina. 

Yet the kind of social change envisioned by anti-mining critics would require a wrenching transformation in how Americans live and work and a dramatic increase in the number of people biking and walking to work (and other locations). If building thousands of miles of bike trails and traffic lanes can’t even bring the share of bike commuters up to one percent of Americans in 50 years, what kind of laws and regulations would be necessary to double or quadruple it in the next couple of decades? It’s difficult to imagine a scenario short of totalitarian that would even come close.

Americans love their cars and their mobility. Not because they love tailpipe emissions, but because of the freedom and quality of life those vehicles allow them to have. The Competitive Enterprise Institute has celebrated this enthusiasm in a variety of publications over the years, including “Autonomy and Automobility” by Loren Lomasky, “Cars, Women, and Minorities: The Democratization of Mobility in America” by Alan Pisarski and “Engines of Liberty: Cars and the Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe” by  Waldemar Hanasz.

Whatever environmental benefits we may want to prioritize in the future, activists and policymakers will need to understand that their fellow countrymen actually like and value owning their own vehicles for their own sake, and not indulge in the all-too-common theory that Americans only expect to drive and live in suburban communities because they’ve been tricked into in, or because Exxon Mobil and General Motors engaged in some kind of Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style conspiracy to eliminate transit options in the mid-20th century. 

It’s entirely possible that many more people will want to ditch their cars for bikes, trains, and buses in the future. But they should do so because they’re making decisions that they think will actually make their lives better, not because the vehicles they actually want to use are outlawed or so highly taxed that only the rich can afford them. 

We also covered this topic in Episode 8 of the Free the Economy podcast (the transportation segment starts around 8:32).