3 ways policymakers can make EV batteries more sustainable

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EV Batteries play a central role in the new energy economy as we transition to electric cars. Image:

Benedikt Sobotka
Chief Executive Officer, Eurasian Resources Group (ERG)
Mathy Stanislaus
Director, Public Policy, Global Battery Alliance
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  • There is growing concern about the increased demand for commodities and metals used in electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
  • The Global Battery Alliance brings together public-private stakeholders to enable battery scale up that contributes positively to climate goals.
  • We've identified three areas which policymakers should address to establish a sustainable battery value chain.

With COP26 still fresh, world leaders are struggling to take environmental action and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees. At the climate talks, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched an international plan to deliver clean and affordable technology around the world by 2030. Over 40 world leaders have backed and signed up to the new Breakthrough Agenda, including the US, the EU, India and China, in order to coordinate green innovation.

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Clean technology clearly holds the key to lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and successfully delivering the renewable energy transition. Yet according to the latest research from the IEA, only two out of 46 energy technologies and sectors are “on track” with the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. If we are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we must dramatically scale and speed up the development and deployment of clean technologies.

Why are EV batteries so important?

The International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2021 notes that “batteries play a central part in the new energy economy” and requires 60% of the $27 trillion in clean energy technology investment in 2050. The Global Battery Alliance (GBA), a multistakeholder initiative for establishing a sustainable battery value chain, predicts global battery demand will increase 19-fold between 2018 and 2030. This is largely driven by the electrification of transport.

Image: IEA.

Electric vehicle (EV) sales rose by 40% last year to a record three million, despite overall car sales falling by 16% due to the pandemic. By 2030, experts expect the number of EVs on the road to reach a staggering 120 million. Moreover, a study conducted by the Global Battery Alliance (GBA) indicates that for every unit of solar energy capacity created there would be a need for three times the battery storage capacity.

While manufacturing the required volume of EV batteries will be a challenge in and of itself, we must also pay greater attention to ensuring they are sustainably produced. In many instances, the battery value chain is still relatively opaque, leading to environmental and ethical concerns around potential human rights violations, child and forced labour and the end-of-life treatment of batteries.

Action is already being taken by the public sector to ensure the battery value chain is scaled up sustainably. However, this work needs to be supported by policymakers across the globe in order to realise batteries’ full potential in supporting the Paris Agreement. COP26 provides a perfect opportunity to address this. Here are three main areas that need to be discussed:

1. Establish a global data governance framework

A governance framework will be critical, along with responsible sourcing and circularity through verified data and digital traceability systems. To realise ambitious climate goals, policymakers – in alignment with the private sector – need to agree on harmonised principles for digital traceability, access and transparency. Authenticated data can be used to verify the GHG emissions of countries, companies and products alike, and would ensure that nations are held accountable for their GHG contributions.

COP26 provides an opportunity to trigger greater progress in this area. Decision-makers need to collaborate on establishing a global framework for data access and authentication of batteries, along with safeguards for data security. This would enable us to validate and track progress towards sustainable, responsible and resource-efficient batteries. For instance, at the GBA, public and private organizations are working to create a “Battery Passport”, which will amalgamate important data about batteries and act as a quality seal for the industry, increasing transparency across the supply chain.

2. Establish global policy alignment to drive circularity

Recycling is critical to ensuring the battery market can keep up with the ever-growing demand from the EV sector, and to guarantee a sustainable battery supply. High-performance recycling of EV batteries has the potential to supply around 10% of battery materials. This has significant implications not only environmentally, but also economically, accounting for approximately $10 billion based on current values. The used EV battery market (second life in stationary application) could surpass 200 GWh/y by 2030 and provide up to 60% of stationary power storage capacity demand globally in 2030.

Policymakers need to use COP26 to refocus circularity on higher value retention processes. For example, battery regulations and end-of-life vehicle directives could include standardising recycling processes and establishing best practices for efficiently disassembling batteries. Introducing producer responsibility and alternative ownership models can also ensure batteries are recovered and recycled using the best technologies and expertise. This is particularly key for the lithium-ion battery industry, in which only around 5% of batteries get recycled. Separately, a trusted data governance framework can foster the scale up of second use of EV batteries.

There also needs to be leadership in addressing current friction points that impede the transboundary movement of EV batteries for repurposing and recycling. Convening policymakers and the private sector can help advance key recommendations and pilots.

3. Encourage ethical and sustainable sourcing of minerals for EV batteries

The rising demand for EV batteries will be accompanied by an equally high increase in demand for the raw materials that go into producing them, including lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. For example, analysts at Roskill forecast demand for cobalt will rise to 270,000 tonnes by 2030, whilst lithium carbonate demand could reach two million tonnes. Managing the production of these minerals, and making sure they are sourced ethically and sustainably, is crucial for a successful green transition.

Policymakers’ role in this is to acknowledge, encourage and reward compliance with best global production standards. Given the historic environmental and social impact of mining practices, there must be a real focus on rigorous environmental performance requirements and monitoring adherence to those requirements. This could involve designating battery minerals as “critical”, recognising compliance with “best-in-class” voluntary standards in supply chains and setting requirements for sustainable mining practices, re-mining and land restoration. Initiatives such as the GBA’s “Battery Passport” can also act as a mechanism to hold upstream players to account and encourage sustainable and responsible sourcing across the supply chain.

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Related topics:
BatteriesEnergy TransitionClimate Change
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