photo illustration: curb; Images: Getty
“There is always a huge climate benefit – and I would argue it’s a safety benefit – to ensuring people have access to excellent public transport,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said earlier this month at the Transportation Research Council’s annual meeting. “Even if we’re not working aggressively to decarbonize current transportation, that alone is one of the biggest and best things we can do from a climate perspective.” This is the closest thing to a low mic found at such an event, so the applause went off for transportation academics, urban planners and civil engineers. Buttigieg had to stop, letting the shouts die down before he could finish his remarks. He was on stage with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to announce the first blueprint to decarbonize American transportation by 2050, an unprecedented collaboration between the Departments of Transportation, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency to move the country away from fossil fuel use. when you move.
Despite its many strengths, the scheme is largely built around two things that have little to do with what made Buttigieg so desirable to transportation professionals: It relies heavily on developing technologies that don’t yet exist and the Biden administration’s goal is to get half. of new cars sold in 2030 will be electric (a number negotiated closely with automakers). The latter point is probably why the slow but steadily increasing number of electric cars, sold in this country each year, has become a special kind of shorthand for the decarbonization revolution. (“EVs continue to defy nearly everyone’s expectations”, “EV sales hit tipping point in 2022”, “EVs = 10% of global new car sales!”) The green future, the story goes, looks a lot like today – Cars on the road stop at charging stations instead of gas stations. But such a one-for-one trade-off—an electric car to replace your fuel consumer—is a disaster of its own making: a slow, resource-intensive creep toward a future of persistently high traffic fatalities, fractured neighborhoods, and infrastructure choices that prioritize roads over everything else. almost. And given what it takes to produce that many cars, the vision that the Biden administration is selling about an electric car in every driveway is more than a fantasy — it’s an environmental nightmare.
For a country like the United States, which has more cars per capita than any of its economic peers and the most carbon-intensive transportation habits in the world (transportation globally accounts for about 15 percent of emissions, but in the United States it is closer to At Providence College and a member of the Climate + Community Project, relying on consumer choices to decarbonize transit will take much longer than almost any other alternative.It’s faster to decarbonize if we can get as many people as possible out of their vehicles as a means of essential transportation.” “By getting people out of cars, we can make public policy decisions that in turn electrify the mass transit system. And the best things we can do” to decarbonize transportation, he’s almost right. It’s actually a bone Something important — besides converting more car trips to walking and cycling — the country can do, according to Achieve zero emissions with more traffic and less mininga new report released this week by the Climate + Society Project.
The report’s focus on the extractive costs of electricity comes at a time when the Biden administration is backing lithium mining projects in Nevada with the express goal of satisfying growing demand from US automakers. Manufacturing electric vehicles requires a wide range of metals from cobalt to copper, but lithium—which is used to make rechargeable lithium-ion batteries—is largely the limiting factor in the current rush to scale up production. According to most estimates, including a report from the International Energy Agency, lithium demand will exceed global production by 2030, which is why the Department of Energy describes lithium extraction as a national priority. If any of the Biden administration’s plans for the future of passenger cars are to come true, auto companies need more of this precious resource. And quickly.
What this means, from the Department of Energy’s perspective, is more domestic mining. Almost all US lithium is currently sourced abroad, mainly from Argentina and Chile, but a proposed mine in northern Nevada, authorized by the Trump administration in 2019, would provide a fifth of the estimated global demand. Lithium can be extracted from rock or salt water, and the largest extraction site ever in the United States will be Thacker Pass, located on an ancient volcano in the high desert, a 5,695-acre open pit mine that will be drilled over. 40 years, and then it was filled in again. Like its predecessor in the White House, the Biden administration supports the project, describing it as key to energy independence, a one-stop-shop for manufacturers like Tesla’s Gigafactory, which would be able to mine lithium and make batteries in the same state. This is not the only Nevada lithium project that the Biden administration is promoting. Earlier this month, the Energy Department committed to lending $700 million to another lithium mine in Nevada as part of a new program intended to benefit automakers.
But this reliance on domestic lithium mining to fuel the electric car revolution concentrates new environmental and health costs in a handful of American communities. In 2021, a broad coalition of tribal governments and environmental groups, including the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, which considers Thacker Pass land sacred, sued the Bureau of Land Management, saying they were not consulted or included in the plan. Earlier this month, attorneys representing the Bureau of Land Management cited Biden’s electricity agenda specifically as a reason to move forward with mining, despite concerns raised by the lawsuit about environmental devastation, including groundwater pollution and habitat destruction. Gary McKinney, a member of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute tribe who lives nearby, says his community still suffers from the effects of an abandoned copper mine in the 1940s, where tailings caused high rates of cancer and birth defects, as well as failed land-reclamation efforts. “I see these commercials where they’re all switching to EVs and whether it’s lithium or cobalt or copper, they need to look at each of these metals and go back to each of the places where they were mined,” McKinney says. “We want them to look beyond 40 to 60 years and understand how our future generations will live.”
This year, a federal judge will issue a ruling deciding whether the Trump administration acted illegally in Thacker Pass, but if any lithium mining progresses in the United States, it appears necessary to use these minerals to get most people moving, says Kira McDonald, co-author of the report. Climate + Community Project. “What we’re really talking about is reducing the resource intensity of the transmission system,” she says. The Vision is a country that is less dependent on the vehicle – and less dependent on the lithium battery -. A way to get ourselves out of a climate hole without tunneling into another. MacDonald points to cities like Amsterdam and Mexico City, which are less reliant on cars than similarly populated cities in the United States. Or the proportion of trips taken by cars is not as high as I expected,” she says, noting that most Americans already live in such places. (The general consensus is that passenger car use in rural areas will remain largely the same.)
According to the report, a decrease from 800 to 400 cars per 1,000 people, accompanied by increases in commuting, cycling and walking, could reduce lithium demand by up to 66 percent. Adding strict battery recycling practices results in a 90 percent drop in demand. But even the United States if dependence on the car remains the same, only little bit Reducing the size of electric vehicle batteries in cars — including making the vehicles themselves smaller — could reduce lithium demand by 42 percent.
The average vehicle curb weight is now 4,289 pounds, according to EPA data. Larger vehicles are being blamed for soaring traffic deaths, and part of the reason electric vehicle batteries are so big is because automakers build them as if they had tanks of gas to go 300 miles per charge. This is a point of pride for the Biden administration, as the president spoke of the big batteries at the Detroit auto show: “Today, if you want an electric car with a long range, you can buy one made in America.” Well, General Motors’ American-made Hummer weighs almost three tons thanks to its gigantic battery, which itself weighs as much as a Honda Civic. Even the nation’s most popular car, the F-150, also has an electric version that’s about a third heavier than its gas-powered counterpart. The day after Buttigieg and Granholm had their sidelines conversation, NTSB President Jennifer Homendy addressed the risks, saying, “I firmly believe that breathing clean air is a human right. But we have to be careful not to also cause unintended consequences: More death on our roads.”
The focus of car-side decarbonization efforts is on other policies as well. Incentives to get people to use electric vehicles using widespread tax breaks and rebates are not matched by incentives to get people to cross. The Inflation Reduction Act gives car buyers up to $7,500 of their money per vehicle, but there is no discount for a transit user who has been riding the bus the whole time. (Currently, the majority of electric vehicle owners are wealthy, live in California, and drive Teslas.) Statewide programs show what’s possible here: Denver’s popular e-bike credit has supported thousands of e-bike and e-bike purchases. Using money from the Climate Action Fund. There is evidence that these vehicles are increasingly becoming alternatives to cars. A country with a serious plan for decarbonization would not subsidize large electric vehicles without a plan to help people buy smaller vehicles such as electric bicycles or golf carts. There is also no federal transportation funding to make trains and buses more efficient and reliable. Foreign policy pushes in the opposite direction — such as Cori Bush’s Bus Rapid Transit bill, announced at the end of last year, which focuses heavily on helping cities invest in infrastructure like dedicated bus lanes along with financing operations costs — but These are often afterthoughts.
Now that this supergroup of Voltron-style federal agency officials has assembled, the Biden administration needs to think beyond the resource-intensive EV. (As McKinney says: “You can’t fix dirty mining with more dirty mining.”) Allowing automakers to dictate the speed and focus of our decarbonization efforts will mean that it will take a very long time to meet our emissions goals—the average passenger car on U.S. roads for about 15 years – even parts of the US are well on their way to electric vehicle standards. California recently passed a statewide plan to phase out sales of gas-powered cars by 2035, and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that nearly 19 percent of all new car sales in 2022 in the state were electric. He described it as part of the country’s leadership in the “zero-emission vehicle revolution”. But there’s a snag: Given California’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, its climate agency admits that these measures can’t be achieved with electricity alone. the Just The way California can meet its emissions milestones is by reducing total vehicle use by 25 percent.