Mining raw materials such as cobalt or lithium for information and communications technologies (ICT) or decarbonized mobility comes with a hefty environmental, social, and human rights price tag. With Europe’s green and digital transformation topping the Portuguese EU presidency, besides driving innovations in the transportation sector, clear policies and funds are needed to encourage reduced resource consumption while making supply chains of these minerals fair and sustainable.
Rosa Hergan, | 6 May 2021
On its path to meet its climate neutrality scenario, the EU is set to secure its supply of key raw materials underpinning its digital revolution and clean up the industry’s supply chains by 2025. The picture is all the more impressive when you consider that, by 2030, its demand for lithium is estimated to grow 18 times and for cobalt 5 times, compared to the current supply. By 2050, the figures for lithium approach almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times for cobalt.
The EU’s plan to deal with the slew of issues in the supply chain can’t come soon enough. Little has been done in terms of the lack of transparency and the high impact of the supply chain of ICT-related raw materials, starting with material mines, and stretching to smelters and complicated manufacturing networks.
A look at the lack of safeguards in Europe’s green transformation scenario shows that Commissions’ approach to hastily open mining projects in the EU and its neighborhood may amplify existing exploitative and corrupt practices that harm the nearby environment and livelihoods.
In Serbia, a planned lithium mine has illegal government support to the Rio Tinto corporation, lack of public participation, and secrecy surrounding the proceedings of the project.
Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of the world’s storage of Cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and about 10 per cent is excavated in small-scale mines associated with human rights allegations and reports of child labor.
The transportation question
For Dr. Harald Buschbacher, an e-mobility expert from Vienna, one way to address the impacts stemming from the green agenda’s push for resource extraction is found in improving public transportation and shared mobility. How shared fleets can become a driving factor in reducing resource consumption is a story of down-scaling range and passenger capacity of electric vehicles (EV).
“If everyone owns their individual vehicle, this means that not only a larger number will be used less than an hour per day, but also passenger vehicles have to come with five seats, high-speed, high crashworthiness and long-range,” he says.
A recent study has revealed just how redundant private ownership of passenger vehicles is in wealthy countries with good transport systems, showing that the European countries average 1.7 passengers in vehicles. This raises Buschbacher’s hopes for the wide-scale introduction of smaller and slower EVs such as these prototypes; a 2-user EV or an automated EV fleet.
“If people could take a shared vehicle for every trip, both the necessary number of vehicles and the required battery capacity of every single vehicle could be reduced,” says the expert. The battery capacity is the energy storage over a specific time and is driven by fuel economy, range, and powertrain configurations.
In terms of e-mobility management, the key is to integrate EVs into public transportation systems for a short to medium range such as their last leg of the journey between a rail station and one’s home in rural and suburban areas that lay beyond the coverage of commercial services.
Dr. Buschbacher suggests that “it seems realistic that shared cars would operate 25% of their lifetime, leading to maximally 50% of the vehicles in motion at the same time.” In cities with advanced public transport networks, “the number might be even lower because public transport tends to cover the greater bulk of the user mobility during peak hour rather than off-peak.” In the long run, he predicts the demand for vehicles to drop to a fifth, compared to a scenario with individual ownership.
The takeaway for reduced resource consumption is this: we need electric cars with lesser battery capacity because “the demand for key raw materials is proportional to the total demand of battery capacity in kilowatt-hour (kWh) and inversely proportional to battery’s lifetime, while the charging and discharging speed of batteries also factors into the battery capacity,” says Buschbacher.
If we want batteries “with less demand for some raw materials, then we should rather downsize the vehicles to meet the requirements of mostly short trips for one or two person, instead of upsizing electric vehicles to equal the driving range of those driven by fossil fuels,” which makes him endorse the mainstreaming of fleets of short-ranged and 2-user EVs in existing transportation networks.
And yet challenges remain around the energy density of batteries since charging smaller batteries takes longer, according to Buschbacher. But there is an array of alternatives under development, if not already on the market, that aim for higher energy density with different battery chemistries.
Even if a varied choice of batteries gains traction on the market, the Commission needs to take clear policy action and allocate funds to meet its long-term goals of achieving a circular economy, reducing resource consumption, and making supply chains of raw materials fair and sustainable.
For Buschbacher, besides earmarking European funds for pilot projects to make carsharing systems more competitive and reduce individual car ownership, perhaps the most important measures are “stricter national and EU level legislation or financial motivators on non-sustainable sourced material” to curb the hidden cost of reducing carbon emission with electric cars.
In the end, city planners are part of this quest because the individual’s choice between car sharing and car ownership depends on whether spatial planning and public transport systems match their mobility needs. According to Dr. Buschbacher “in order to reduce the absolute resource consumptions, public transport should be improved, otherwise people will not have the possibility to choose vehicles with less range, and completed by carsharing.”
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