Lithium mining on Salar de Uyuni in Potosí Bolivia in 2023: the largest salt flat in the world (Image Credit: Pierre Markuse / Sentinel Satellite Imagery | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Going for white gold: can lithium solve the emissions crisis?

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 195 countries made commitments to reduce their carbon footprint. This is in the pursuit of limiting temperature increases as a result of human activity over the next century to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—with the report emphasising the need for warming levels to remain “well below” an unsafe increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

One way of moving towards this goal is limiting the amount of carbon-emitting vehicles on the road. In 2022, the European Parliament voted to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035. The UK government made a similar commitment: to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. 

Consequently, the International Energy Agency calculated that the number of electric vehicles on the road will have to increase from just 16.5 million in 2021 to 350 million by 2030 to meet global climate commitments. 

However, reaching these climate goals comes with challenges – the effects of which are already being felt. There has been increased demand for minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, which make up the essential parts of batteries necessary for electric vehicles. The 2023 US Geological Survey reported that the global consumption of lithium rose by 41% between 2020 and 2021. The World Bank expects that by 2050, lithium production levels will be 500% larger than 2020 levels. 

With drastic increases in the production of lithium to be expected over the following years, the sustainability of the practice of lithium mining becomes a cause for concern. Already-witnessed impacts on local communities, water consumption, and the surrounding environment draw into question how this process can feasibly be expanded at such a rate. 

More than half of the world’s lithium resources are found in the ‘Lithium Triangle’: an area encompassing parts of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. In Argentina alone, investments in lithium exploration for future production rose by 928% from 2015 to 2018. Not all of these investments have materialised into increased production yet. But already from 2021 to 2022 Argentina’s lithium exports rose by 235%

An area showing the ‘Lithium Triangle’ across Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile (Image Credit: Mamayuco | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

In 2008, the government of Bolivia explicitly linked their lithium reserves to their commitment to fight climate change stating: “The plurinational State of Bolivia assures the world a sufficient supply of lithium… This is the commitment of the Bolivian State to fight global warming”.

The recent intensification of lithium mining in the region is only set to continue. The three countries have found themselves economically not in a position to autonomously expand their lithium industry, and they are often engaging with foreign countries, ceding various degrees of control to them. Argentina has been embracing a more liberalised approach to the involvement of external companies whereas, the industry in Bolivia and Chile is subjected to more state restrictions. Extractivist policies can limit the economic benefits that the presence of lithium will bring to local communities. Involvement in lithium mining by foreign companies in the region has been described as “green capitalism but with colonial features”.

In response to the Bolivian government signing a contract to mine lithium with a German company, protests and strikes were held in Potosí, where mining was taking place. The local people were not seeing sufficient benefits from the mining activities and accused the government of allowing the “surrender” of lithium resources to a foreign company. 

The government cancelled the contract, but protests continued, converging with protests claiming a rigged election. President Evo Morales resigned amid the election fraud dispute, but claimed that there had been interference by the US and remained convinced that he had fallen victim to a “coup against lithium”. The claim and prior protests emphasise the contentious nature of lithium mining in the country. 

World leaders meeting at COP21 in 2015, which led to the signing of the Paris Agreement (Image Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Lithium mining in the region is extremely water-intensive. The process involves evaporating large amounts of water to extract the mineral, with two million litres of water required to extract one tonne of lithium. 

The expansion of lithium mining practices will endanger the livelihoods of people living near the salt flats, particularly those relying directly on the same water basins. In the Catamarca region of Argentina, lithium mining operations have been found responsible for the drying-up of the Trapiche River floodplain. Lithium mining on the Salar de Atacama in Chile has used 65% of the region’s water supply. Similarly, in both Argentina and Chile, local people have raised issues with lithium mining activities contaminating rivers used for farming, irrigation, and domestic consumption.

Many people rely directly on the same water sources for their personal consumption. They need it for their livelihoods, such as raising crops and livestock. Thus, the consequences of projected lithium mining may have a severe impact on locals. 

There are concerns that regions affected by the mining are set to become “sacrifice zones”: areas surrendered in the name of achieving global climate goals. Fragile ecosystems and indigenous communities are put at risk in the service of reaching the low-carbon targets of other countries. 

Problems of lithium extractivism are being exacerbated by global climate commitments. More must be done to recognise the harmful impacts of  ‘green extractivism’—the pursuit of global commitments to lower carbon emissions. Additional efforts are needed to address the environmental harm, water injustice, and social exclusion caused by existing practices to ensure the green transition does not bring harm to those that it is supposed to save.

By Kiera Barry

March 30, 2024

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