Sustainable batteries: Revised EU laws can pave the way for greener transport

EU officials want to make durable, repairable and recyclable batteries the norm. From transport to energy storage, this is the way forward to reduce the environmental impact and downside risks of our increasingly electrified economy.

The European Commission has unveiled a new legislative proposal to boost the market for sustainable batteries, including those used for electric vehicles, trains, energy storage, smartphones and home appliances.

The news comes following Wednesday’s publication of the EU’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility strategy – a plan to reduce transport emissions by 90% by 2050 – and the announcement by the European Investment Bank to allocate more than €1 billion to battery-related projects.

As a key part of the European Green Deal, the proposal represents a much-needed step forward to reconcile Europe’s quest for the electrification of our economy with the need for resource efficiency and sustainability, the EEB said.

Batteries are necessary to phase out diesel and petrol cars, and replace fossil fuels with clean energy in other sectors of the economy, Piotr Barczak, the group’s policy officer for the circular economy, commented. However, the extraction of raw materials used to produce them has led to the depletion and pollution of waterways, soil and other natural resources in many areas of the world. The carbon footprint of the battery production chain is also huge.

Barczak said that “more efficient and durable batteries produced from responsibly sourced materials can help mitigate the environmental impact of mining.” He also pointed out that “sustainable batteries can make Europe less dependent on imports from third countries by boosting the internal market for secondary raw materials.”

Rita Tedesco of standardisation group ECOS also welcomed the new laws, but warned that “more can be done to ensure batteries are reused after their first life and properly recycled” and that most of the technical aspects of these laws are yet to be defined.

This new, legally binding framework – an update of the existing EU batteries directive published in 2006 – will focus on:

  • Ensuring sustainable sourcing and mandatory due diligence across the supply-chain
  • Boosting the production of longer lasting and reusable batteries
  • Improving recyclability of batteries by upgrading targets and incentivising recycled content to reduce the extraction of primary raw materials
  • Aiming to phase out non-rechargeable batteries from the market
  • Improving the separate collection of batteries for recycling and reuse
  • Replacing some of the most toxic technologies with clean alternatives

The proposed measures will be discussed by the European Parliament and national governments before becoming part of an EU-wide, legally-binding regulation in 2021.

The problem with batteries

  • If recycling rates do not grow sufficiently by 2050, the reserves of copper, lithium, nickel and manganese in existing mines will be exhausted and much of the depletion will be due to the batteries required by electric vehicles, according to research carried out as part of the LOCOMOTION project.
  • The production of a long capacity battery for a typical electric vehicle can result in almost 9 tonnes of CO2 emissions – the equivalent of the electricity use of more than one household over a year.
  • The extraction of raw materials such as lithium costs 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, the global lithium-ion market is set to grow by up to 30% each year.