The need for mineral mining is increasing significantly with the energy transition and the deployment of clean energy technologies, such as electric vehicles. With that, what’s also increasing are questions on the sustainability and carbon footprint of raw materials mining and processing.

Lithium is set to see the fastest demand growth among battery minerals, with consumption growing as much as 40 times by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Though that estimate is based on a sustainable development scenario, current policies would still lead to a 13-fold growth compared to 2020 levels.

While emissions along the mineral supply chain do not negate the climate advantages of clean energy technologies, more needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This, in turn, should boost the lithium industry’s social licence to operate.

Yet, up until last month, the lithium industry did not have a specific product carbon footprint (PCF) assessment guide to enable accurate comparisons across the industry. The need for sustainability transparency led the International Lithium Association (ILiA) to propose a PCF guidance with the help of 45 organisations, including leading lithium miners, users, academics and consultants.

“The lithium industry recognised that there was an urgent need for a standardised way to determine the GHG generated during the production of lithium. Previously such guidance did not exist, which meant that direct comparisons between two different lithium life cycle assessments [LCAs] could be challenging,” ILiA secretary general Roland Chavasse tells Kallanish

“Regulators, the automotive industry and the public wanted to know the amount of GHG emissions generated when an EV is produced, and the EV manufacturers needed to know the GHG from copper, nickel, cobalt, graphite, lithium and other raw materials used to make an EV. Most other raw materials had already developed a standardised approach to GHG calculations, but lithium had not done so before now,” he explains in an interview.

The “short, practical document” is aimed at tackling the “dozens of standards” relevant to a lithium PCF. It provides clear instructions and examples of how to manage the contribution of co-products; and is agnostic to resource type, technology or geography.

The ILiA says that the standardised approach in carbon footprint accounting will now allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, though it expects further enhancements in the future.

According to Mark de Boe, vice president of sustainability at Albemarle, LCAs are usually based on a range of “abstract, generic standards” such as the ISO 14067 and those standards focusing on the chemical and battery industries. The executive, who also leads the ILiA’s Sustainable Lithium Subcommittee, expects this new “consensus document” to be widely applied. The association will promote the use of its guidance amongst its members, but “will not police members to use it,” de Boe notes.

“With the new guidance, carbon footprint reporting will reach a good level of maturity in the global industry sooner than it would otherwise have done,” predicts Chavasse. 

That’s because legislators are increasingly using PCF as a metric to ensure the achievement of decarbonisation goals, requiring accurate scope 3 emissions reporting. At present, the strongest driver for the potentially wide adoption of this guidance seems to be the EU Battery Passport, part of the battery regulation. From 1 February 2027, OEMs must provide detailed information on a battery, including its carbon footprint and other environmental impacts.

Carbon border leakage mechanisms such as the CBAM in place in Europe, and taxonomy are also expected to drive interest in a uniform carbon footprint calculation method. In fact, Laurens Tijsseling, director at consultancy Minviro, notes that reporting on GHG and tackling hotspots in lithium production will unlock a “commercial value,” with financial incentives linked to CO2 impacts.

With various ways to calculate CO2 impacts, “there can be differences in assumptions, which will have significant impacts on the final results and have a detrimental financial effect,” he adds. With a harmonised set of standards or guidelines, legislators can ensure companies are not unfairly penalised or given unfair advantages, the experienced LCA practitioner says. 

Roughly, the total lifecycle GHG of EVs is around half those of internal combustion engine cars on average, with the potential for a further 25% reduction with low-carbon electricity, according to the IEA. However, this varies widely depending on a number of factors such as these typical lithium GHG hotspots: extraction and refining (cradle-to-gate), combustion of fossil fuels, use of electricity, footprint of raw materials, transport emissions, co-product and waste handling, and process emissions.

Players throughout the lithium and EV supply chains are starting to pay more attention to hotspots, such as EV company Polestar. In its quest for performance and sustainable mobility, the Swedish brand said last week it cut the carbon footprint of its all-electric SUV, Polestar 3, to 24.7 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. This was achieved by reducing aluminium and battery-related emissions through renewable electricity.

The estimate, done through an ISO 14067-based LCA, was reviewed by Ricardo plc. It was calculated using three different electricity mixes and a 200,000 km lifetime distance driven. For the first time, vehicle maintenance was also included in the calculations. The car’s cradle-to-grave carbon footprint ranges between 28.5-44.5 tCO2e depending on the electricity used to charge the vehicle during its lifetime.

Reaffirming the case for increased transparency, uniformity and sustainability, Fredrika Klarén, head of sustainability at Polestar, notes that the majority of a vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from extracting and processing materials. “As we accelerate the adoption of electric cars, there is a lot we can do to reduce their production-related emissions and strengthen the role of innovations and of electric cars as a climate solution,” she concludes.