We are told with solemn certainty that the world will be destroyed in the next decade if we don’t mend our fossil fuel consuming ways. We are told we need a “green new deal” to promote reusable energy. And then the Guardian tells us that the rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining. Let’s see what the latest crisis is.
In order to stave off the worst of the accelerating climate crisis, we need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions. To do so, energy systems around the world must transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Lithium batteries play a key role in this transition: they power electric vehicles and store energy on renewable grids, helping to cut emissions from transportation and energy sectors.
A fine synopsis of the climate crisis narrative. It neglects to mention the use of nuclear power, lower emission fossil fuels like natural gas, the potential for using hydrogen to power vehicles rather than using Lithium batteries, and the fact that there are other ways to store power on the grid like kinetic storage, gravity-based storage, and pumped hydroelectric power.
Underneath the Chile’s Atacama salt flat lies most of the world’s lithium reserves; Chile currently supplies almost a quarter of the global market. But extracting lithium from this unique landscape comes at a grave environmental and social cost.
As with all things (including reducing emissions), there are costs that must be weighed against the benefits.
In the mining installations, which occupy more than 78 sq km (30 sq miles) and are operated by multinationals SQM and Albemarle, brine is pumped to the surface and arrayed in evaporation ponds resulting in a lithium-rich concentrate. The entire process uses enormous quantities of water in an already parched environment. As a result, freshwater is less accessible to the 18 indigenous Atacameño communities that live on the flat’s perimeter, and the habitats of species such as Andean flamingoes have been disrupted.
This sounds a lot like the extraction of bitumen from the Athabasca oil sands.
This situation is exacerbated by climate breakdown-induced drought and the effects of extracting and processing copper, of which Chile is the world’s top producer. Compounding these environmental harms, the Chilean state has not always enforced indigenous people’s right to prior consent.
Balancing the common good with the right’s of individuals is always difficult. British Columbia’s Site C dam, for instance, will generate green renewable power for hundreds of thousands of people, but everyone living in the lands that will be flooded to form it’s reservoir, many of whom are natives, will be forced to move.
Does fighting the climate crisis mean sacrificing communities and ecosystems? The supply chains that produce green technologies begin in extractive frontiers like the Atacama desert. And we are on the verge of a global boom in mining linked to the energy transition. A recent report published by the International Energy Agency states that meeting the Paris agreement’s climate targets would send demand skyrocketing for the “critical minerals” used to produce clean energy technologies. The figures are particularly dramatic for the raw materials used to manufacture electric vehicles: by 2040, the IEA forecasts that demand for lithium will have increased 42 times relative to 2020 levels.
The current technologies we have to reduce vehicle emissions require us to extract lithium. If global warming is truly a climate crisis, can we afford to wait for hydrogen or fuel cell powered vehicles? If we can’t, what alternative is there?
Across the global lithium frontier, from Chile to the western United States and Portugal, environmental activists, indigenous communities and residents concerned about the threats to agricultural livelihoods are protesting over what they see as the greenwashing of destructive mining.
Naturally, residents of the affected areas have every right to protest actions taken or sanctioned by governments. The environmental activists, however, do not. You cannot state that climate change is an existential crisis in one breath, while in the next condemning actions that must be taken to mitigate it. This is purest hypocrisy.
Indeed, natural resource sectors, which include extractive activities like mining, are responsible for 90% of biodiversity loss and more than half of carbon emissions. One report estimates that the mining sector produces 100bn tons of waste every year. Extraction and processing are typically water- and energy-intensive, and contaminate waterways and soil.
Government can and should do what it can to make these industries do the least harm to the commons that it is responsible for.
Alongside these dramatic changes to the natural environment, mining is linked to human rights abuses, respiratory ailments, dispossession of indigenous territory and labour exploitation. Once the minerals are wrested from the ground, mining companies tend to accumulate profits and leave behind poverty and contamination.
Mining companies are not responsible for poverty, and they will do as little as possible to ensure that they are profitable as possible. That is why in this case, government is actually useful, and should regulate industry and police their practices. Government also has a duty to ensure that the value of the resources extracted is realized by the people they are responsible to.
These profits only multiply along the vast supply chains that produce electric vehicles and solar panels. Access to these technologies is highly unequal, and the communities who suffer the harms of extraction are frequently denied its benefits.
There is nothing stopping the Chilean government from using fees it charges the mining companies to buy electric vehicles and solar panels for its people.
The transition to a new energy system is often understood as a conflict between incumbent fossil fuel firms and proponents of climate action.
I would say it is then misunderstood. Environmentalists don’t offer an alternative to fossil fuels. The transition is really a disruption of an existing, ubiquitous and highly efficient technology (the internal combustion engine) by a new one (battery powered electric motors).
A transportation system based on individual electric vehicles, for example, with landscapes dominated by highways and suburban sprawl, is much more resource- and energy-intensive than one that favours mass transit and alternatives such as walking and cycling.
All of these alternatives have incredibly limited ranges, which is one of the main problems that has prevented electric vehicles from becoming main stream. Transit, biking, and walking can work for people living in cities, but they will never be more than a partial solution. For example, before Covid, I took rail to work, but I still needed a vehicle to drive the shorter distance from my house to the station, and in soggy greater Vancouver, cycling is an unattractive option for most of the year. I could easily use an electric vehicle, if they were as affordable as my gasoline powered car.
Likewise, lowering overall energy demand would reduce the material footprint of technologies and infrastructure that connect homes and workplaces to the electricity grid. And not all demand for battery minerals must be sated with new mining: recycling and recovering metals from spent batteries is a promising replacement, especially if governments invest in recycling infrastructure and make manufacturers use recycled content.
Recycling can help, but usually can only replace a fraction of the new materials required. For example, recycled paper is used to make newsprint and cardboard, but copy paper is made from new pulp. It’s not like there are millions of vehicle batteries out there to recycle at this point either.
Moreover, mining operations should be required to respect international laws protecting indigenous rights to consent, and governments ought to consider outright moratoria on mines in sensitive ecosystems and watersheds. Movements on the ground in Chile are articulating this vision.
“International laws” have no authority. If Chileans want mining companies to have to respect indigenous rights, those rights had better be codified by the Chilean government and be enforced by it.
This alternative vision now has a chance of becoming a reality. In May, progressives swept elections for an assembly tasked with rewriting Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution, and for local and regional offices. Many of the constitutional convention delegates are connected with student, feminist, environmental and indigenous movements; one of them is Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist and a forceful advocate for protecting the salt flat from rampant extraction.
If a coalition of students, feminists, and environmentalists truly has the power to rewrite the Chilean constitution, the country is probably in line to be the next Venezuela.
Meanwhile, The Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats (Opsal, of which I’m a member) links environmental and indigenous activists across the so-called “lithium triangle” of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and has advocated for holistic regulation of this vulnerable desert wetland, prioritising its intrinsic ecological, scientific and cultural value and respecting communities’ right to participate in its governance. Opsal is working with members of Congress to draft a law that would preserve the salt flats and wetlands currently threatened by lithium and copper mining, and hydroelectric plants.
Thereby preventing development of renewable energy, its transmission, and its use in electric vehicles. I guess Chile will just keep burning fossil fuels?
Chilean activists are clear: there is no zero-sum conflict between fighting climate breakdown and preserving local environments and livelihoods. Indigenous communities in the Atacama desert are also on the frontlines of the devastating impacts of global heating. Rather than an excuse to intensify mining, the accelerating climate crisis should be an impetus to transform the rapacious and environmentally harmful patterns of production and consumption that caused this crisis in the first place.
How? It’s incredibly tiresome to continually see any alternative to the status quo blocked by those who condemn that same status quo as a crisis. This is exactly the mentality that prevents the building of clean nuclear power plants in favour of burning dirty coal. Everything has costs, benefits, and risks. They have to be weighed and mitigated. You cannot hold your breath and throw a tantrum and expect people to give up their cars, hot water, and central heating. Either global warming is a crisis, and we need electric cars and nuclear power stations, or its not, and you can shut up now.