Intelligent Transport – The Future of Electric Mobility Hinges on Sustainable Batteries

Publication: Intelligent Transport
Date: September 2020

Benedikt Sobotka, co-Chair of the Global Battery Alliance, explains why achieving a responsible battery supply chain is crucial to the longevity of electric vehicles as a solution to creating a greener future.

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC has had a profound impact on the transport and mobility sector. The reality of lockdowns, restrictions on activities and other social distancing measures has grounded flights, reduced public transport capacity and caused car sales to plunge. The International Road Transport Union (IRU) predicted that global road transport activity could fall by up to 20 per cent in 2020, and it is uncertain when this will return to pre-pandemic levels.

The electric vehicles market has been positioned as a driving force for economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst global sales of combustion engine vehicles are forecast to fall by 23 per cent this year, EVs are weathering the storm far more resiliently. Tesla’s Model 3 was the UK’s best-selling car in both April and May, and McKinsey expects European sales of EVs to exceed the 14 per cent initially estimated by the McKinsey Centre for Future Mobility in 2022. Electric vehicle penetration rates also reached new heights over the first five months of 2020, with Western Europe reaching a penetration rate of 8.3 per cent and the UK’s penetration rate at around seven per cent.

Despite lockdowns stalling the market, electric and hybrid cars are clearly gaining traction among European buyers.

The benefits of electric mobility have been well documented and known long before the outbreak.

In 2018, J.P. Morgan predicted that electric vehicles would have a 7.7 per cent market share by 2025. With the transport sector currently already responsible for around a quarter of global CO2 emissions – and road traffic accounting for the lion’s share of this – it has long been recognised that electric mobility could be key in reducing carbon emissions, and that the future of transport should involve more eco-friendly modes of travel.

A green recovery from the pandemic
What is unprecedented is the swathe of green recovery packages that this recognition would entail from both China and governments across Europe. The EU’s Green Deal and the recent publication of the EU Recovery Plan, Next Generation EU, highlighted that green technology will be key in rebuilding economies in the aftermath of the pandemic. EV and renewable energy initiatives have been introduced across the continent in recent months, including increased subsidies, scrapping EV parking fees and a ramp-up of charging infrastructure instalments. France has announced a €7,000 grant towards the acquisition of a new electric car, Germany has doubled its buyer incentives for electric cars to €6,000 from €3,000 and the UK government has committed £12m to EV research funding with a focus on recyclable, sustainable batteries. China’s State Grid recently announced the construction of 78,000 new charging points in 2020 and the country extended electric vehicle subsidies by two more years.

However, whilst this focus on green technology and zero-emission mobility is a welcome step, when attempting to determine the future of sustainable mobility, it is necessary to look beyond just the emissions created by the vehicle itself.

The social and environmental impact of the entire value chain must also be brought into consideration.

The need for sustainable batteries
To this end, cross-industry collaboration is necessary to ensure that all components of EVs – most notably, the lithium-ion batteries that they run on – are responsibly and sustainably sourced.

This is the aim of the Global Battery Alliance (GBA), a public-private collaboration platform of around 70 members, ranging from OEMs to tech and mining businesses, national governments and civil society institutions. Since its launch in 2017, the Alliance has been working to catalyse and scale up efforts towards creating a socially-responsible battery value chain – ensuring the sustainability of EVs from the ground to the wheel.

Demand for batteries is set to increase 19-fold by 2030 according to a report published by the Global Battery Alliance. This, in turn, constitutes one of the highest purchase orders the mining industry has seen to date. It is therefore vital to ensure that the increased consumption of key battery metals does not come at the expense of local communities, environments and ecosystems – particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where around two thirds of the world’s cobalt is located, which is a critical mineral in Li-ion batteries.

One of the GBA’s key initiatives is the development of a Battery Passport. The concept was launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos earlier in 2020 and is a positive step towards responsible consumption of key battery metals The Passport will act as a quality seal on a global digital lifecycle platform for sharing value chain data of batteries. It will allow users to verify material provenance (as well as battery chemistry and identity) and measure the sustainability and environmental impact of the battery. As Vauxhall noted: “People are buying low emission vehicles in the knowledge that not only are they clean but the direct benefit of clean means lean in terms of fuel consumption.” The Passport will enable people to purchase EVs with the additional knowledge that they are sourced to the highest possible social and environmental standards – and at no point connected to child labour which can still be involved in the production of cobalt, a key battery metal, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Another key component of the future of sustainable mobility is the end-life treatment of vehicles and their components. By the end of the decade, around 11 million tonnes of batteries are estimated to reach the end of their service lives.

Whereas, historically, almost 100 per cent of batteries in cars have been reused, no clear solution has been implemented yet for the lithium-ion batteries used in EVs. The Battery Passport will further assist with reducing GHG emissions and supporting higher levels of battery recycling. This is because one must know the material provenance and chemistry of a battery, its usage and the way it was manufactured in order to recycle or re-purpose it.

It is crucial that the sustainability of the vehicle components themselves is not overlooked.

EVs present an attractive, eco-friendly alternative for the automotive sector, but we must ensure that the less visible impacts – both in terms of sourcing the batteries and end-of-life management – do not impede the sustainability of these initiatives. Efforts to create a cleaner and more robust mobility industry must incorporate the entire battery value chain.

View the original article here: Intelligent Transport Volume 04, Issue 03 (page 44)