New battery law could help Europe lead the green battery race

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

On average, electric cars are three times cleaner than conventional cars [John K Thorne / Flickr]

Batteries are about to become the new gold in Europe, but there must be sufficient regulation to ensure they are clean and sourced ethically, write Alex Keynes and Cecilia Mattea

Alex Keynes is a clean vehicles manager and Cecilia Mattea is a clean vehicles officer at Transport and Energy, a European clean transport NGO.

Europe will need to be selling battery electric vehicles only by 2035 if it’s to become climate neutral by 2050. The immense demand for batteries will make them more like the new “gold” than the new oil.

Unlike oil, battery materials such as lithium, nickel and cobalt are not burned to power vehicles – they can be recycled and reused continuously.

But with dozens of gigafactories setting up shop in Europe and around the world, now is the time to establish rules to ensure all batteries used here are ethically sourced, produced with clean energy, and re-used and recycled at the end of their lives.

So, what should Europe’s upcoming sustainable batteries law include?

Low-carbon batteries

Electric vehicles are already three times cleaner than conventional cars on average. But upstream emissions of battery production still represent a chunk of the vehicle’s overall lifecycle emissions, with three-quarters of total energy used to produce the cells.

As cell production is mainly powered by electricity, these emissions can easily be reduced. The type of electricity used is therefore crucial to determining how green the battery actually is.

Already today the footprint of battery production can be as low as 60kg CO2e/kWh if manufacturing processes are powered by a low-carbon grid. This is a huge drop compared to the previous best-case estimate of 150kg/kWh, made less than three years ago.

This means that, EU-wide, an electric vehicle has to drive a mere 18,000 km – around a year’s mileage – before being greener than a conventional car.

Europe can and must take steps to ensure battery producers are incentivised to use renewable electricity.

First, the regulation must require manufacturers to disclose data on emissions and energy use specific to each manufacturing process, factory, and location.

In order to prove that renewable energy has been used, so-called guarantees of origin – which are similar to voluntary carbon offsets – must not be allowed, as they do not bring more renewables onto the grid.

Instead, Power Purchase Agreements – that help finance and deploy additional renewables – should be used, or direct connection to an off-grid renewable energy plant.

If manufacturers don’t provide the data, default values for carbon emissions should be used for the country where the different components were produced.

As a next step, maximum carbon footprint thresholds based on industry-wide best practice should apply to all manufacturers who want to sell on the EU market. Ambitious rules here would represent a double win both for the climate and for European manufacturing by restricting imports of higher carbon batteries.

Ethical batteries

For zero-emission mobility to be truly sustainable, the supply chain for the materials we need must be managed in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

This applies to all energy-intensive products, not just batteries. Mandatory requirements for ethical and transparent sourcing from conflict-affected or politically unstable areas are today missing. Whilst voluntary schemes exist, these often lack adequate enforcement and auditing provisions.

Inventing new certification schemes is not the answer. Instead, existing best practice OECD guidelines on upstream, midstream and downstream companies that use globally extracted materials in Europe should be fully implemented to ensure responsible business conduct.

EU policymakers must make the OECD 5-step framework binding for companies using (at least) copper, cobalt, nickel and lithium. This will ensure supply chain risks are identified and traced and, most importantly, remedied.

It will also give a competitive edge to European companies that already have a strong corporate responsibility culture and apply many of the measures required.

Having learnt from other sectors, such as biofuels, that voluntary certification schemes simply do not work, it is critical that, where such schemes are to be recognised by EU rules, third-party independent auditing takes place.

Circular batteries

Batteries are already more resource-efficient than fuels. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that a diesel car will burn over 10,000 litres of fuel over its lifetime – a segment C diesel car at 6 L/100 km emits 12,000 litres over 200,000 km.

Meanwhile, an electric vehicle battery uses rather than burns up to 10kg of cobalt to drive the vehicle during its first life. But batteries that are recycled and reused for a second and even third life will reduce their relative environmental impact even further.

As demand soars over the coming years, some raw material extraction will be needed to keep pace with the growing market. But recycling must be prioritised ahead of new mining, and it will be crucial to offset supply risks, price fluctuations and environmental concerns.

The goal of the new EU rules should be to recover all valuable material from batteries at the end of their life.

Although this makes both economic and environmental sense, there is currently very limited recycling capacity for Li-ion batteries in Europe with most sent to China.

Ambitious and binding targets for recovery of key battery materials – notably cobalt and nickel, of which above 97% is recoverable, and, crucially, lithium – will spur the investments needed to establish the recycling capacity and local jobs in Europe.

While less mature, setting high recovery rates for lithium – 90% as soon as feasible – is paramount to Europeans leading in this field, and it is already achievable by some today.

As ever with legislation, the devil will be in the detail of the proposals. Low carbon footprint values might look nice but will count for little if accounting processes contain loopholes such as offsets.

Such crucial details must not be left to secondary (comitology) legal processes down the line, but should instead be agreed in the upcoming law.

Batteries will become one of the most strategically important technologies in the coming decades, so Europe is right to want to bring the industry here.

But as investments in electric vehicles and battery production ramp up, clear rules and standards are needed as soon as possible to drive this money towards best sustainable technologies.

There is no time to waste if Europe wants to become the global green battery powerhouse.

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