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The Trouble with Lithium

Lithium (the reactive alkali metal needed for phone, tablet, computer and electric car batteries) is in higher demand than ever; it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. The environmental impact of extracting lithium has become a critical issue in the process of moving toward clean energy and away from fossil fuels.

The problem is that the mining process requires vast quantities of water (up to 1,700 liters per second) in some of the driest places on earth, namely the South American “lithium triangle” nations of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The salt flats of Bolivia contain the largest known reserves of lithium on the planet. It is estimated that the Bolivian Andes have a whopping 70% of the sought-after metal.

The fight over this resource was one of the factors in the recent political coup in Bolivia, in which longtime indigenous president Evo Morales was ousted. Communities around the salt flats have led hunger strikes and blockades to protest both the environmental damage and the transfer of wealth to foreign corporations.

Ten years ago, Chilean lithium battery expert Guillermo Gonzalez stated: “Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells. This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

Building a green energy grid, expanding renewables and making everything from cars to cooktops electric requires more lithium and other specialized metals that are central to clean energy. The Institute for Sustainable Futures has predicted that if the planet is to run fully on renewables by 2050, it would require 85% of the planet’s total lithium resources.

It is worth noting that EV car sprawl is likely a transitionary period to more sustainable solutions, such as carpooling and public transport, which will gradually become more common, safe and fun. Increases in EV tech availability include a boom in the EV car sector, as well as housing and power transmission via battery energy storage systems.

Studies need to be conducted to weigh the feasibility of a global EV automobile model alongside removing fossil fuels from the grid. All efforts to remove fossil fuel from the carbon budget must be considered. New technology needs to be developed that use more environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working to develop new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with less toxic materials.

A well-designed and implemented Green New Deal could transform way lithium and other valuable resources are harvested and sold, while simultaneously averting climate catastrophe by responding to the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us about. Transitioning off of fossil fuels and moving into more EV manufacturing has the potential to create millions of jobs. Decarbonization will demand transforming suburbs, cities and rural areas through investments in public transit and affordable housing, however.

We are indeed moving away from the unchecked capitalism model, but the big question remains -- will the change happen fast enough?



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