Since the Second World War, every decade of American automotive culture has had a defining characteristic. The 1950s were defined by chrome and fins, the 60s by muscle cars, the 70s by the malaise, and so on and so forth. While it is only 2023, a fairly clear pattern has emerged that will most likely be the single defining characteristic of this decade: sustainability. Sustainability can mean a variety of things in the world of automotive, from better materials used in manufacturing to increasing the market share of electric vehicles. The definition of sustainability according to the EPA is “creating and maintaining the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Unfortunately, for many of these prior decades, the acts required to pursue sustainability were accidentally or purposefully ignored by many segments of the automotive industry and American society. However, with increasingly dangerous environmental consequences forecasted by the world’s top scientists, sustainability is now at the forefront of global conversation. Automakers, whether out of a motivation for increased profits or mandates from the federal government, are attacking the issue of sustainability from a variety of angles. The sum total of this effort will in theory transform an industry known for damaging the environment to an industry that actively works to sustain it, ensuring that vehicles continue to be a net positive far into the future.
One of the biggest questions surrounding widespread EV adoption is the sustainability of material sourcing. EVs require significant amounts of rare earth minerals (REMs) which are often sourced from less-developed countries. EV batteries are made up of materials such as lithium, cobalt, copper, and nickel, with the vast majority of lithium mining taking place in Australia, Zimbabwe, and Brazil. Popular mechanics reports that the average EV requires 8 kg of lithium to manufacture. With the global available lithium reserve at 22 million tonnes, there is no apparent shortage of material required to construct an enormous amount of electric vehicles. However, as of 2021, the total world production of lithium was 105 tonnes, and by 2030, it is possible that manufacturers will need to acquire up to 450,000 tonnes of lithium per year. More problematic still, lithium mines are extremely water intensive and are notorious for polluting water sources while causing significant damage to local biospheres. As a part of making EVs sustainable, new methods must be devised to reduce the impacts of lithium mining. Luckily, a lithium mine in Snow Lake, Manitoba is taking the lead on the future of EV sustainability.
The idea behind the Snow Lake lithium mine is to create an all electric mining operation. Positioned next to a hydroelectric power station, Snow Lake Lithium hopes to draw 98% of their power from the dam while similarly not using any diesel burning vehicles to extract or haul materials. Lithium is currently extracted using two methods: hard rock and brine. The hard rock mining process requires less water than brining, and the Snow Lake mine plans to employ this method to save water and reduce contamination of the local environment. In theory, this mine could produce up to 160,000 tonnes of 6% lithium spodumene every year, providing OEMs a sustainable and local source of materials so essential for the next generation of electric technology. Assuming Snow Lake Lithium is able to reach its expected potential, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that more mines will follow suit, leading towards an overall marked improvement in the sustainability of car battery production and compliance with the Inflation Reduction Act.
Going beyond the obvious issues with battery sourcing, OEMs have a variety of other unsustainable practices surrounding material acquisition. An example of this is the amount of leather used for car interiors. In Brazil, the auto industry uses over 30% of all leather hides produced from the country’s cattle ranches, a side effect of the meat industry driving rampant deforestation and destroying millions of acres of the Amazon rainforest. Environmentally sustainable leather could look like buying from more ethical and regulated domestic sources or improving the quality of synthetic materials. Along the same lines, keeping parts manufacturing close to the location of final assembly will drastically reduce the emissions caused by international shipping. Maritime shipping alone accounts for about a billion tons of greenhouse gasses per year and make up 3% of all global emissions by themselves. This does not account for air cargo, trucking, rail or any other way of moving goods across the world. A concerted effort by OEMs and mobility providers to move their supply chains physically closer together is essential to sustainability in the long term and will likely reduce costs as federal regulations around parts sourcing tightens.
OEMs have a myriad of different ways to attack their chronic sustainability issues. Nearly every part of the industry could be made more environmentally conscious in some way without a long term increase in costs. Investment in things like supply chain integration and advanced mining may seem like an undue financial burden now, but by the end of the decade, the payoffs – both financial and environmental – will be abundantly clear. Working towards a sustainable future will be the primary mission for the auto industry for the foreseeable future, and if the right decisions are made, the 2020s will be remembered as the decade of sustainability for generations to come.
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