The rapid transition to clean energy is essential if we are to head off the worst impacts of climate change, yet we must avoid the mistakes of the past. We cannot replace dirty fossil fuels with dirty mining. Instead – alongside responsible mining practices founded on informed community consent – we must build a more circular metals economy focused on recycling, reuse, and reduced demand. And we must avoid new mining to the greatest extent possible.
New research shows that this can be done. The research, prepared by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) for US-based NGO Earthworks, finds that optimising battery metal recovery could reduce demand for copper, lithium, cobalt and nickel in the EV battery supply chain by 25-55% over the next two decades, and that recovery rates of above 90% are technologically feasible for all four metals. Though, as battery technology continues to improve and evolve, less raw material will be needed to produce each kWh of an EV battery.
There is, however, a gap between what is technologically possible and what is currently being done. Today’s economic incentives and policy requirements are inadequate to ensure optimal recycling of battery metals. This is particularly true of lithium, of which, according to the research, only an estimated 12% is being recovered from end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.
The European Union is making significant strides towards meeting this challenge. In December 2020, the European Commission published a proposal for a new regulatory framework covering the lifecycle of batteries. The proposed regulations, spanning 79 articles, covers the full battery value chain from material extraction to reuse and recycling, with provisions ranging from mandatory due diligence in mineral sourcing to carbon footprint accounting.
But progressive policies will need to go further to mitigate the negative impacts of these vital supply chains. For example, the findings of the UTS-ISFs newly published research demonstrate that the proposed targets of 35% lithium recovery from waste batteries by 2026, and 70% by 2030, do not reflect the recovery capacity of current and emerging recycling processes. Given these findings, lithium recovery targets should be set at at least 70% in 2026 and 90% in 2030.
Beyond the recycling targets, other areas of the proposed regulations require changes and additions to ensure the best possible outcomes for mining-affected communities, workers, and all other parties affected by the supply chains of lithium-ion batteries. Mining operations must adhere to stringent environmental and human rights standards (such as those developed by the multi-stakeholder Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance) with independent, third-party assurance of compliance. In an effort to document these gaps, and propose concrete solutions, Brussels-based NGO, Transport and Environment has published a position paper detailing how EU regulators can further improve the proposed legislation and help make ‘made in Europe’ green batteries a reality.
Every effort to reduce demand for newly mined metals will also have a direct, positive impact on people and ecosystems around the world. Our efforts to address the climate crisis must also help us move beyond unsustainable and destructive mining practices. Europe’s policymakers must not waste this opportunity to put in place a truly circular battery value chain.