Earthward: White Gold

All eyes in the climate world are preparing to turn toward the UN’s annual two-week Conference of the Parties, which begins on November 30 in Dubai. This is the 28th such meeting under the 1992 international treaty known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which coordinates the worldwide response to global warming. COP28 is particularly notable because it comes on the heels of the just-issued Global Stocktake, a progress report mandated in 2015 (at COP21) as part of the Paris Agreement. There is a lot to say about the Stocktake, but as it essentially functions as a report card, everyone will first look to the overall grade. This is coming in somewhere around a C+. Much has been done since 2015 to avert worst-case scenarios, yet the required global transformations in renewable energy and natural resource conservation are not moving nearly fast enough to limit temperature increases to the 2.0°C target set by the planetary boundaries framework (Earthward, September 21), let alone the 1.5°C goal aspired to at COP21. The implications of the Global Stocktake for setting the ongoing climate agenda will be a major topic of discussion in Dubai.

The “good news and bad news” message of the Global Stocktake now shows up just about everywhere. In the US, it has just appeared in the fifth and latest National Climate Assessment, issued last week by the US Global Change Research Program. Like its four predecessors, the NCA5 report analyzes climate change impacts across ten regions comprising the lower 48 states, Alaska, Hawaii and US-affiliated Pacific islands, and the US Caribbean. Writing in the New York Times, NCA5 coauthor Kate Marvel notes many reasons why one might continue to feel despair at the present situation, yet also describes a new optimism born from her realization that many climate solutions are now available and cost-effective. More echoes of this theme can be found in recent analyses from the Energy Information Administration and the Carbon Monitor emissions tracker. Each group projects that US emissions will fall by 2.5-3% in 2023, a significant and welcome decrease following the post-Covid rebound, yet still only half the 6% per year drop needed for the nation to meet its 2030 target pledges under the Paris Agreement.

Perhaps the most granular (yet readable) report on the current state of the global climate comes in a document titled “State of Climate Action 2023”, a collaborative venture among seven think tanks and foundations, published under the auspices of the Systems Change Lab. Intended to support the Global Stocktake, the report assesses global climate action through 42 indicators, and once again emphasizes the need to face the seemingly inconsistent truths that we are (a) deep in the climate emergency while (b) also seeing spectacular gains. Six of the 42 indicators, including steel production, food waste, and fossil fuel subsidies are rated as heading in the wrong direction, while over half are moving in the right direction but are well off track to meet 1.5°C targets – with the pace of improvement needing to accelerate by 2-10 fold, or even faster. These include climate finance flows, technological carbon removal from the atmosphere, energy and carbon intensity of buildings, meat consumption, and sustainable aviation. Six sectors are in better shape though still somewhat off track, including the zero-carbon share of electricity production and the amount of reforestation. Only one sector is achieving a rate of change sufficient to meet the 2030 target for a 1.5°C world. According to this analysis, the world is, rather remarkably, now on track for electric vehicles to reach 75-95% of total annual light duty vehicle sales by 2030.

New car and light truck EVs reached 10% of worldwide sales in 2022, with an average 65% yearly rate of growth over the past five years. However, this growth is very uneven. China led the world with a 22% EV share of light duty vehicles in 2022, and the EU came in at 12% (notably, Norway was at 80%), but US EV sales made up only 6% of the market and most of the rest of the world saw much lower numbers. The singular on-track rating for this sector is based on a projected high likelihood of continued cost reductions together with improvements in vehicle range and charging infrastructure. Nonetheless, the report notes that concerns persist about materials supply chains, exclusion of low-income countries, and the buildout of assembly plants. We should also note that the proportion of bus and heavy truck sales that are EVs, and the shares of low emissions or sustainable fuels used in shipping and aviation, are all far off track or even moving in the wrong direction.

In the US, a few market analyses and actions by automakers are beginning to suggest that sales of battery-electric cars and light trucks are slowing in the latter part of this year. Some reports attribute the perceived slowdown to a decrease in consumer demand, and note that unfamiliarity with the product, concerns about driving range and charging infrastructure and still-higher prices compared to gasoline models (together with high interest rates) are all contributing. Another possible factor is that ownership by high-income early adopters on the East and West coasts may be starting to saturate. Dramatic price cuts by Tesla, apparently a defensive move against other automakers, have also led to a buildup of inventories and may be contributing to recent decisions by General Motors and Rivian to cut some production lines and delay the rollout of new models. And Ford is scaling back its plans for a Michigan EV battery plant slated to open in 2026, cutting output by 40%. While other analysts feel that these dynamics reflect expected growing pains, evidence for at least a temporary slowdown continues to accumulate.

The extraordinary growth of EVs is forcing healthy climate advocates to confront some unpleasant truths about the tradeoffs between a stable climate and the historic values of the environmental movement. This conflict shows up most prominently in the acquisition of the materials needed to assemble the EV batteries, the core element of the technology. Lithium ion batteries presently dominate EVs because they offer very high energy densities, delivering efficient power while maintaining low battery weight. Some lithium batteries also incorporate nickel, cobalt and manganese, substantially multiplying the environmental costs of the mining operations. Lithium for EV batteries has traditionally been produced from ores by hard rock mining, an approach that both scars the land and carries a very large carbon footprint. An alternative and probably more environmentally friendly method, however, is to obtain the lithium from geothermal brines. Lithium-rich underground pool are reached by drilling, and the salty liquid brought to the surface, where it is placed in evaporation ponds and then subject to one or more of a variety of chemical processes to generate lithium metal in chemical forms useful for incorporation into EV batteries.

Historically, the most common source for lithium brines has been the so-called “lithium triangle”, an area in South America comprising parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. Lithium mining has been concentrated in these countries and in Australia, while downstream lithium processing is dominated by China. Hence, the US has been largely excluded from the lithium value chain, reflecting a major point of contention in the negotiations leading to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last year. That law offers manufacturers and consumers sizable tax credits for the assembly and purchase of EVs, but only when they incorporate battery materials sourced from approved countries. To qualify for the tax credits, by 2027 80% of the market value in the battery metals, including lithium, cobalt and nickel, must come from either US mining operations or US free trade partners. These include Australia and Chile, but Argentina, Bolivia and China are not on the list. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, by far the world’s leading source of cobalt, is excluded as well. Domestic requirements are also phasing in for battery and vehicle assembly, excluding a number of foreign EVs. These new rules now have significant influence on the decisions of US automakers. Ford’s leadership has stated that its choice to maintain the Michigan EV battery plant, albeit scaled down, is directly connected to its confidence that the operation will qualify for the tax credits.

The severe limitations in foreign sources for battery metals has led to a dramatic decision by ExxonMobil: last week, the company announced plans to initiate a new project, Mobil Lithium, that will drill wells into a limestone formation in southern Arkansas to access a lithium-rich deposit of geothermal brine. The company expects commercial sales of lithium to EV battery manufacturers by 2027, one step on its goal to supply the lithium needs of “well over a million EVs per year” by 2030. Of course, given the tax credits and much lower domestic delivery costs, US battery manufacturers and EV companies like Ford and GM will probably be happy to replace their imported lithium with as much as Exxon can generate. Other US oil giants, including Chevron and Occidental Petroleum, are also exploring the technology and have begun to look at pilot operations.

Lithium extraction from brines is more environmentally friendly than hard rock mining, but its impacts are still significant, and we should bear in mind that the expected eventual full replacement of internal combustion engines with electric motors will likely drive an enormous expansion in the technology. Lithium iron phosphate batteries are taking an increasing market share from batteries that combine lithium with nickel and cobalt, which at least mitigates the environmental impacts from mining the other metals. However, only sodium ion batteries, today mainly produced in China, are plausibly in a position to replace lithium entirely. These batteries are cheaper because they rely on much more commonly available materials, but so far they do not match the energy density, efficiency or lifetimes of lithium batteries, and are mainly envisioned for lower intensity applications such as e-bikes and scooters, or for stationary sources.

Presently, the only operating US lithium mine is located in remote Silver Peak, Nevada. This facility extracts lithium from geothermal brines, the same basic technology that ExxonMobil plans to use in Arkansas. It will not be the only one for long. The Nevada Division of Minerals Open Data Site reports that, as of September of this year, over 20,000 placer claims for lithium metal or brines have been filed in the state, encompassing 18 distinct hydrological basins that possess key geologic characteristics, such as lithium-containing source rocks and the presence of one or more adequate aquifers. Nationwide, 79% of known lithium deposits are found within 35 miles of tribal land, and prospects for new operations are unsurprisingly drawing some significant opposition from indigenous communities. Last year, The Guardian quoted a warning from a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe, who understandably fears that the new operations “will turn what is left of my ancestral homelands into a sacrifice zone for electric car batteries.” That article went on to note that some operations are planned directly on sacred indigenous lands such as Peehee Mu’huh (Thacker Pass), the site of an 1865 massacre of Paiute tribe members. One tribal member said that the proposed project is “like putting a lithium mine on Arlington cemetery.”

The commercial exploitation of lands adjacent to those presently lived on by indigenous communities is not the only issue. Lithium deposits are primarily concentrated in arid regions that are further drying as a consequence of climate change, and the extraction of subterranean lithium-rich brines unavoidably generates underground movement of water from scarce fresh aquifers into the briny areas, where it becomes undrinkable. Runoff from the evaporating ponds can also pollute surface waters and impact biodiversity. These issues will require close monitoring by environmental advocates. As the EV revolution picks up steam and the number of batteries exponentially multiplies, we will begin to see markets for used materials and the opening of a lithium recycling industry that should help mitigate the amount of necessary new mining. Right now, however, the influx of prospectors to Nevada is reminiscent of the Gold Rush, with the new “white gold” exerting the same magnetic lure that drove miners West over a century ago.


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Earthward is written by Dr. John Perona and is an outgrowth of the climate education work begun with From Knowledge to Power: The Comprehensive Handbook for Climate Science and Advocacy (K2P).