Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty
“There is always a huge climate benefit — and, I would argue, a safety benefit — to ensuring people have access to excellent public transit,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said earlier this month at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting. “Even if we weren’t aggressively working to decarbonize existing modes of transportation, that alone is one of the biggest and the best things we can do from a climate perspective.” This is the closest thing to a mic drop that exists at such an event, so the assembled transportation academics, urban planners, and civil engineers erupted into applause. Buttigieg had to pause, letting the hoots fade out before he could finish his remarks. He was onstage with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to announce the first blueprint to decarbonize U.S. transportation by 2050, an unprecedented collaboration between the Departments of Transportation, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency to move the country away from using fossil fuels when, well, moving around.
Despite its many strengths, the blueprint is largely built around two things that have very little to do with what got Buttigieg the most applause from transit professionals: It’s heavily reliant on developing technologies that don’t exist yet and the Biden administration’s goal to have half of the new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric (a figure closely negotiated with automakers). The latter point is perhaps why the slow but steadily growing number of electric vehicles, or EVs, sold in this country each year has become its own kind of shorthand for the decarbonization revolution. (“Electric Vehicles Keep Defying Almost Everyone’s Predictions,” “Electric Vehicle Sales Hit a Tipping Point in 2022,” “Electric Vehicles = 10% Of New Vehicle Sales Globally!”) A green future, the story goes, looks a lot like today — it’s just that the cars on the road make pit stops at charging stations instead of gas stations. But a one-for-one swap like that — an EV to take the place of your gas guzzler — is a disaster of its own making: a resource-intensive, slow crawl toward a future of sustained high traffic deaths, fractured neighborhoods, and infrastructural choices that prioritize roads over virtually everything else. And considering what it would take to produce that many cars, the vision being sold by the Biden administration about an EV in every driveway is more than just a fantasy — it’s an environmental nightmare.
For a country like the United States, which has more cars per capita than any of its economic peers and the most carbon-intensive transportation habits in the world (globally, transportation makes up about 15 percent of emissions, but in the U.S. it’s closer to 30 percent), relying on people’s consumer choices in order to decarbonize transit will take much longer than virtually every other alternative, says Thea Riofrancos, a political-science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate + Community Project. “It’s faster to decarbonize if we can get as many people as possible out of their vehicles as their primary mode of transportation,” she says. “By getting people out of cars we can make public-policy decisions that then electrify the mass-transportation system. We’re dealing with the problem with the scale that it requires.” So when Buttigieg says increasing access to transit is “one of the biggest and the best things we can do” to decarbonize transportation, he’s almost right. It’s actually the most important thing — along with shifting more of those car trips to walking and biking — that the country could do, according to Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining, a new report out this week by the Climate + Community Project.
The report’s emphasis on the extractive costs of electrification comes at a moment when the Biden administration is endorsing lithium-mining projects in Nevada with the explicit purpose of satiating growing demand from U.S. automakers. Manufacturing electric vehicles requires a wide range of minerals from cobalt to copper, but lithium — which is used to make the rechargeable lithium-ion batteries — is largely considered the limiting factor in the current rush to scale up production. By most estimates, including a report by the International Energy Agency, demand for lithium will exceed global production by 2030, which is why the Energy Department describes lithium extraction as a national priority. If any of the Biden administration’s plans for the future of passenger cars is to come to pass, car companies need more of this precious resource. And fast.
What this means, from the Energy Department’s perspective, is more domestic mining. Nearly all of the U.S.’s lithium is currently sourced from overseas, mainly from Argentina and Chile, but a proposed mine in northern Nevada, permitted by the Trump administration in 2019, would supply one-fifth of estimated global demand. Lithium can be extracted from rock or brine, and the Thacker Pass site, situated on an ancient volcano in the high desert, would be the largest-ever lithium mine in the U.S., an open pit mine 5,695 acres in size that will be excavated over 40 years, then filled back in. Like its predecessor in the White House, the Biden administration supports the project, touting it as key for energy independence, a one-stop-shop for manufacturers like Tesla’s Gigafactory, which would be able to mine lithium and make batteries in the same state. This isn’t the only lithium project in Nevada the Biden administration is promoting. Earlier this month, the Energy Department committed to loaning $700 million to another lithium mine in Nevada as part of a new program meant to benefit automakers.
But this reliance on domestic lithium mining to fuel the EV revolution concentrates new environmental and health costs in a handful of U.S. communities. In 2021, a broad coalition of tribal governments and environmental groups, including the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, which considers the Thacker Pass land sacred, sued the Bureau of Land Management, saying they weren’t consulted or included in the plan. Earlier this month, Biden’s vehicle-electrification agenda was specifically cited by lawyers representing the Bureau of Land Management as a reason to push forward with mining, despite the concerns raised by the lawsuit about environmental devastation, including groundwater contamination and habitat destruction. Gary McKinney, a member of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribe who lives nearby, says his community is still suffering from the effects of a copper mine abandoned in the 1940s, where tailings caused high cancer rates and birth defects, as well as failed land-reclamation efforts. “I see these commercials where they’re all switching over to EVs and whether it’s lithium or cobalt or copper, they need to look into each of these minerals and go back to each of the places where they’ve been extracted,” says McKinney. “We need them to look further down the road than 40 to 60 years and understand how our future generations are going to be living.”
This year, a federal judge will hand down a ruling deciding whether or not the Trump administration acted illegally at Thacker Pass, but if any lithium mining moves forward in the U.S., it seems crucial that these minerals should be used to move the most people, says Kira McDonald, a co-author of the Climate + Community Project’s report. “What we’re really talking about is decreasing the resource intensity of the transportation system,” she says. The vision is a less car-dependent — and less lithium-battery-dependent — country. A way to dig ourselves out of one climate hole without tunneling into another. McDonald points to cities like Amsterdam and Mexico City, which are considerably less car dependent than cities of similar population density in the U.S. “One thing that was striking is that the kind of population density that is required to start dramatically decreasing the number of car trips, or the proportion of trips that are being taken by cars, is not as high as I had expected,” she says, noting that most Americans already live in such places. (The general consensus is that the rate of passenger-car use in rural areas will largely remain the same.)
According to the report, dropping from 800 to 400 cars per 1,000 people, accompanied by an increase in transit ridership, biking, and walking, could reduce lithium demand by as much as 66 percent. Adding aggressive battery-recycling practices brings demand as low as 90 percent. But even U.S. if car dependence remains the same, just slightly reducing the size of EV batteries in cars — including making the vehicles themselves smaller — can reduce lithium demand by 42 percent.
The average vehicle weight is now a record-breaking 4,289 pounds, according to EPA data. Larger vehicles are being blamed for skyrocketing traffic deaths, and part of the reason EV batteries are so big is because automakers are building them as if they have gas tanks to go 300 miles per charge. This is a point of pride for the Biden administration, with the president talking up big batteries at the Detroit Auto Show: “Today, if you want an electric vehicle with a long range, you can buy one made in America.” Well, GM’s American-made electric Hummer is nearly three tons thanks to its gigantic battery, which is itself the weight of one Honda Civic. Even the country’s most popular vehicle, the F-150, also has an electric version that’s one-third heavier than its gas-powered counterpart. The day after Buttigieg and Granholm held their fireside chat, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, addressed these risks, saying: “I firmly believe it is a human right to breathe clean air. But we have to be careful that we aren’t also creating unintended consequences: more death on our roads.”
The car focus of this administration’s decarbonization efforts bears out in other policies, too. The incentives to get people into EVs using tax credits and rebates are not matched at scale by incentives to get people onto transit. The Inflation Reduction Act gives car buyers up to $7,500 of their money back per vehicle, but there’s no rebate for the transit user who has been riding the bus this whole time. (Currently, a majority of electric vehicle owners are wealthy, live in California, and drive Teslas.) State-level programs show what’s possible here: Denver’s wildly popular e-bike credit has subsidized thousands of e-bike and e-cargo bike purchases using money from a climate-action fund. There is evidence that these vehicles are increasingly becoming car replacers. A country with a serious decarbonization plan would not offer large subsidies for electric cars without a plan to help people buy smaller vehicles like electric bikes or golf carts. There’s also no federal funding for transit operations to make trains and buses more efficient and reliable. Outlier policies are pushing in the opposite direction — like Cori Bush’s bus-rapid-transit bill, announced at the end of last year, which is heavily focused on helping cities invest in infrastructure such as dedicated bus lanes along with funding operations costs — but these are all too often afterthoughts.
Now that this supergroup of federal agency administrators has assembled, Voltron-like, the Biden administration needs to think beyond the resource-intensive EV. (As McKinney says: “You can’t fix dirty mining with more dirty mining.”) Letting automakers dictate the speed and focus of our decarbonization efforts will mean it will take way too long to hit our emissions goals — the average passenger car is on U.S. roads for 15 years — even in the parts of the U.S. that are well on their way to hitting those electric-vehicle metrics. California recently passed a statewide plan to phase out sales of gas-powered cars by 2035, and Governor Gavin Newsom announced last week that nearly 19 percent of all new-car sales in 2022 in the state were electric. He called it part of the state’s leadership in the “zero-emission vehicle revolution.” But there’s a hitch: Due to California’s own goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, its climate agency admits that those metrics cannot be achieved by electrification alone; the only way California can hit its emissions milestones is by reducing total car use by 25 percent.