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In order to be able to drive electrically, various rare metals are required. This will cause a problem in the near future. Replacing these metals with other raw materials can reduce our dependence. This is the simplest solution for society, but it is not technically feasible in the short term. That is why a shift will have to take place towards electric shared cars, cars with a smaller battery and better recycling. That’s what the report ‘Metaalvraag van Elektrisch Vervoer‘ by environmental scientist Benjamin Sprecher of Leiden University and organisations Copper8 and Metabolic concludes.

Current global production of some critical metals is reported to be insufficient for the large-scale shift to electric transport. Calculations for the Netherlands show that on the basis of a ‘fair share’ of the metal supply, the country could have no more than one million electric cars by 2030. However, in order to achieve the country’s climate targets, twice as many electric cars will have to be available. There are currently some 171,000 electric cars on the road in the Netherlands.

A number of specific metals that are crucial for electric vehicles – nickel, praseodymium, neodymium, cobalt, dysprosium and lithium – appear to be in short supply. In addition, these metals are also needed for other applications, such as solar panels, wind turbines and consumer electronics.

The “identified reserves” of the required metals are often sufficient. “However, this is not relevant, as availability is limited by production capacity. This production capacity has technical, economic and social limits.” In addition, geopolitical conditions may play a role in the availability of these metals. “Scarcity leads to increased competition, both between applications and between countries. Due to growing global demand for critical metals, the likelihood of geopolitical problems increases every year. Shortages or interruptions in the supply of critical metals can slow down the development of electric transport: something that we cannot use in our climate task.”

The researchers have six recommendations:

  1. Focus on new mobility concepts with fewer vehicles
  2. Invest in future-proof infrastructure and prevent lock-ins
  3. Encourage electric vehicles with small batteries for regional solutions
  4. Develop a Dutch critical metals recycling industry
  5. Support sustainable mining initiatives to minimise the impact on people and the environment
  6. Encourage the development of new battery types at European level
Critical metals needed for electric vehicles in the Netherlands, as a percentage of the worldwide annual production of these critical metals in 2020, 2025 and 2030. © Leiden University

“Let me start by saying that we are definitely not against the introduction of electric cars”, says Benjamin Sprecher, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Sciences Leiden. “The transition to electric transport is important. However, we must be aware that this policy is not without consequences.” He explains, for example, that a greater demand for critical metals – which are also needed for solar panels and wind turbines – can be detrimental to nature. “Increased demand inevitably leads to the construction of new mines. In order to prevent inconvenience to humans, these will be located in remote areas, at the expense of already scarce nature reserves. We must be aware of this and ensure more sustainable mining.”

But that’s not enough, says Sprecher. “We consume an awful lot, so much so that it is no longer enough for us to have one earth. In the case of electric cars too, it is important that we look at ways to reduce the number of cars. Think of shared cars and better public transport.” Other solutions, such as new technologies that are less dependent on critical metals or the use of smaller batteries, are much less effective, but easier to implement.

Three scenarios for limiting the metal demand for electric transport. Scenario 1 looks at new battery technologies: socially simple, but technically unrealistic in the short term. Scenario 2 examines smaller batteries: this results in less range, but also in fewer metals. However, the effectiveness of this approach appears to be limited. Scenario 3 is by far the most effective, but also socially the most complex: by making more effective use of electric vehicles, fewer vehicles are needed and therefore also fewer metals. © Leiden University
Distribution of the production of metals for electric cars. © Leiden University