The drive to produce increasingly reliable and affordable batteries, particularly for EVs, has become synonymous with the zero-carbon transition. According to WEF’s Sustainable Battery Value Chain whitepaper, batteries could enable 30% of the required reductions in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, provide first-time access to electricity for 600 million people, and create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world.
The WEF report describes batteries as a “systemic enabler”, facilitating a major shift to bring transportation and power to greenhouse gas neutrality. Given the enormous potential promised, the authors put forward their vision for how batteries can contribute to sustainable development and climate change mitigation over the coming decade.
They conclude that this enormous opportunity can only be achieved sustainably through a systemic approach across social, environmental, and economic dimensions. The report outlines key conditions and presents recommendations to realize this potential.
MORE BATTERIES, LESS IMPACT
While batteries have long-been relied upon for countless elements of modern-day life, the WEF report suggests that global battery demand could increase by more than 19 times current levels over the next decade. The report argues that immediate action is required in this area both to ensure the Paris Agreement commitments can feasibly be met, and to ensure the emerging battery value chain is quickly optimised, rather than risking costly reconfiguration that could exacerbate social and environmental impacts.
At the forefront of this drive are the automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Auto OEMs will launch more than 300 EV models over the next five years. The WEF report highlights that cost efficient and sustainable batteries, as well as a supporting ecosystem for battery-enabled dispatchable energy, and a dense charging infrastructure network, are all preconditions for broad customer acceptance and economically viable powertrain transition.
The report centres on two primary questions:
1) How can the deployment of batteries be accelerated?
2) How can these batteries be produced responsibly and sustainably?
To accelerate deployment, more investment needs to be attracted along the entire value chain as well as into application infrastructure (e.g. charging infrastructure).
Moreover, lower production costs are required to ensure batteries become sufficiently affordable. Simultaneously, producing these batteries responsibly and sustainably will require lowering emissions, eliminating human rights violations, ensuring safe working conditions across the value chain, and improving repurposing and recycling.
One of the pressing challenges highlighted in the report is the need to secure the raw materials required to enable this surge in battery demand. The WEF notes that the raw material demand driven by battery applications will experience unprecedented growth in the lead up to 2030, with the supply of major raw materials for batteries increasing by factors between 4 for cobalt, and 24 for class 1 nickel, to name just two.
10 CONCRETE ACTIONS
To initiate this shift, the report proposes 10 concrete actions to develop a circular battery value chain, accelerate sustainable business and technology development, and improve responsibility in the value chain.
These are wide ranging and, for example, include the need to implement design and systems for life extension and end-of-life treatment. This will require international policymakers, battery manufacturers, and Auto OEMs to work together to share the data and technology needed to improve the economics of life extension through repair and refurbishment, and recycling.
Another of the 10 actions proposed is to finance the sustainable expansion and support value creation and economic diversification in local communities. This would require all investors, both private and public, to adequately factor in the sustainability elements in the development of the entire value chain.
While the WEF report acknowledges the scale of the challenge ahead for an unprecedented battery roll out, it is unquestionably encouraging. Batteries are described as key to realize the Paris Agreement goals and support the UN SDGs, ultimately creating a vibrant, responsible, and sustainable market.