The problem with batteries

Batteries are an essential product on the path to decarbonization. But experts in the EU are increasingly concerned about their hidden environmental cost and are calling for immediate solutions.

The small Tibetan village of Minyak Lhagang, near the Lichu river, has had to learn about the devastating impact of lithium-ion battery production the hard way.

In the past few years, villagers have reported increasing numbers of dead fish in the nearby river, which is the main source of livelihood to people. In 2016, many staged protests against Ronda Lithium Co ltd, a Chinese mining company extracting lithium in the region and blamed for polluting the river and surrounding soil.

Dead fish found in the Lichu river, near the Tibetan village of Minyak Lhagang

Lithium is needed for any lithium-ion battery to function. These batteries are used in electric cars and energy storage systems, which makes them important elements of our strategy to ditch fossil fuels. But, as it happened in Tibet, mining and processing lithium can lead to leaks of toxic chemicals into the surrounding areas.

Pollution is not the only problem. The extraction of lithium and other metals used to make batteries can also waste enormous amounts of energy and water. In the Chilean region of Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65% of the region’s water supplies, forcing local farmers to buy water from other areas.

Because of increasing demand for electric vehicles, from cars and buses to scooters and bikes, the global lithium-ion market is set to grow by up to 30% each year. Between 2013 and 2016, 15 gigawatt hours (GWhs) of battery production capacity was added. In the coming years an additional 50GWh will be added annually reaching 700 GWh of capacity by 2025.

This brings about additional concerns over the carbon footprint of the whole battery production chain. In the case of a battery for an electric vehicle, production accounts for around 70% of its global warming potential. Greenhouse gas emissions from the production of a 75kWh battery, like the one used in a Tesla model 3, are likely to result in emissions of more than 8 tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent the electricity use of more than one household over a year.

Workers extract lithium from the brine of the salt crust found near a lake in Bolivia, another lithium-rich area. This process is thought be more environmentally friendly than mining, but it is also more energy intensive. (Photo by Ricampelo, CC BY 3.0:

In Europe, the problem is that the current legislative framework fails to address these issues, according to Melissa Zill, a programme manager for environmental group ECOS. “The main piece of legislation regulating batteries in the EU is the outdated Batteries Directive from 2006, long before the boom of e-mobility and lithium-ion batteries. All batteries put on the European market should fulfil strict sustainability requirements,” she said.

A number of policy experts in the EU, including ECOS, have called for immediate solutions to ensure batteries such as lithium-ion batteries are designed to be refurbished, reused and maintained for as long as possible.

“To fully capture the benefits of decarbonising the economy through electrification we need to address the environmental impact of battery production in terms of CO2 emissions, resource depletion and ethical sourcing,” several NGOs wrote in a position paper shared with EU officials this week.

A lithium-ion battery

They demand the development of a new EU-wide regulation to promote the reuse and recycling of batteries and the ethical and responsible sourcing of raw materials like lithium and cobalt.

“Batteries are necessary to replace fossil fuels with clean energy and to electrify our vehicles, but they don’t have to cost us the Earth. What we need is more efficient, durable batteries produced from responsibly sourced materials to alleviate the burden on the planet and on those communities that have been affected along the way,” said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, a policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).