Tip Sheets

China’s electric car switch to rattle industry, drive up price of lithium

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli

Chinese regulators recently announced that the government is setting up a timetable to end production and sales of petrol and diesel cars. China is following the example of other countries, such as Britain and France, that announced similar moves towards cleaner vehicles in the coming years.

Arthur Wheaton

Director, Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs

Arthur Wheaton, an automotive expert with Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says that while the ban makes sense in a country plagued by pollution, obstacles remain.

Wheaton says: 

“The move to alternative fuels makes sense in China, but there are many issues associated with legislating a single solution to the pollution problem. Lithium-ion batteries are the most common electric batteries for automobiles. Lithium is also in relatively short supply and is highly unstable when not manufactured correctly.

“If China does impose a full ban on internal combustion engines it will rattle the industry and make the price for lithium jump as it is already in short supply. There have been promises of hydrogen-powered fuel cells for generations but no major breakthroughs yet.

“California has tried many times to impose regulations on zero emissions vehicles and had to cancel or delay them as problems inevitably screw up the plans. Currently, the U.S. market is much less likely under the current administration to even consider this as an option. It is not fighting the same battle and has moved away from regulations to improve the environment.”

Natalie Mahowald

Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Reducing Climate Risk Working Group co-leader for the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability

Natalie M. Mahowald is professor of atmospheric sciences at Cornell University and an expert on global and regional impact of climate change.

Mahowald says: 

“Reducing the fleet of fossil fuel burning automobiles in China is an exciting development, especially for improving air quality.

“Whether electrical cars emit less carbon dioxide than internal combustion engine cars, depends on the source of electricity: if it is coal, it is not clear that moving to electrical cars helps climate change. But it will definitely improve air quality, since it is much easier to control emissions at a coal-fired power plant than on millions of cars.”

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