The new Tesla S model at a TED showcase. Picture: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr CC
The new Tesla S model at a TED showcase. Picture: Steve Jurvetson, Flickr CC

While the global climate negotiations are at a halt and the prospects of making serious commitments to stop climate change appear depressingly far away, companies and consumers sit on parts of the solution. The sudden boom in the production and sales of e-cars can be seen as a part of the solution to slow down climate change. However, as the conscious consumer drive of to an assumed clean future in a new Tesla, the extraction of lithium used for the e-car batteries leave devastating traces in Bolivia. How clean is this new technology?

The Tesla has been welcomed as a wonder child in the car business, as well as in the environmental lobby community. The electric car does not only have sleek James Bond-like design and an impressive 0-100 km/h in 4 seconds performance – the car emits no CO2 and can drive more than 400 km without being charged. The charging problem has up until now been the biggest hurdle for many car buyers in choosing an electrical car over a fuel driven one. It has simply been too complicated and risky not to rely on traditional fuel. However, the increased use of long durance lithium batteries seems to have solved a lot of the limitations imposed by the previously weak batteries. As a result, the demand for Teslas and other e-cars has skyrocketed.

Along with the search for alternative energy sources and the increased use of Tesla and other e-cars, the global demand for lithium has more than doubled during the past decade. The so-called Lithium Triangle situated on the border between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia is estimated to contain about 85 % of the global resources of this metal. Of the three countries, Bolivia is regarded the biggest up-and-coming market because of its huge unexploited reserves in the Potosí region where the spectacular Salt Flats are situated.

Piles of salt in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo: Camilla van Paaschen
Piles of salt in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo: Camilla van Paaschen

Lithium is extracted from brine (a salt and mineral rich water based solution) found in the groundwater. The brine is pumped up from the ground and processed through different steps of evaporation in huge ponds, making it possible to separate and extract the different minerals. Certain mining companies say that the brine evaporation method is “letting nature do the work”, giving the impression that the industry is cleaner than it is. Studies show that the ‘natural’ method is potentially harmful to the surrounding ecosystem. The production requires pumping up enormous amounts of water from the ground, and experience from Chile shows that surplus water that is not used for the production is in many cases left to evaporate and not brought back to its source. All of this leads to extensive drought and disturbance of the biosphere. Furthermore the production requires high use of toxic chemicals, which both leaks into the ground water and is spread by wind, jeopardizing the indigenous people’s traditional sources of income such as organic quinoa production and herding of lama.

Bolivia, with its long-time struggle concerning social inequality and poverty, is thus facing the challenge of how to handle the potentially enriching resource in a way that respects both the ecosystem and the rights of the indigenous people in the area. President Evo Morales will need a thought-through strategy in regards to the mining companies who are eager to feed a market that cannot seem to get enough of this precious metal. The president who recently was re-elected for his third term has already nationalised the oil and gas industry, aiming to give the mining contracts to state owned companies. Further expansion of the lithium production plants will need strong regulation and transparency, which up until now only has been present in varying degrees.

Bolivian president Evo Morales at Dìa de Trabajadores, May 1 2014.  Photo: Eneas De Troya, Flickr CC
Bolivian president Evo Morales at Dìa de Trabajadores, May 1 2014. Photo: Eneas De Troya, Flickr CC

Back in Europe the suggestions on how to tackle the climate crisis have fallen into the hands of the consumers who are urged to act in an environmentally friendly way while governments debate how to solve the problem on a global level. The introduction of e-cars has in many ways been a success, making it convenient to act in an environmentally responsible way for the money-strong consumer. However, studies from Norway show that e-cars often are purchased in addition rather than instead of a fuel driven car, thus increasing the consumption as a whole.  A transition to a completely green transportation system will therefor require both incentives to buy green cars, as well as restrictions that will make it less attractive to buy fuel driven cars. But most importantly the accounts from South-America prove that there is a need to set stricter standards on the production of the main components in e-cars if Tesla is to be clean both on the highway as well as under the hood.

Camilla van Paaschen

Watch video on Lithium extraction in Bolivia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0DaXNiBQLU