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Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change

The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction.

Lithium mine in Bolivia


Jonathan Neale’s new book, Fight the Fire, is published by The Ecologist magazine, Resistance Books, the Alternative Information and Development Centre, and the International Institute for Research and Education. For a free copy, click the cover image.


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by Jonathan Neale

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

Rare Earth Metals

Similar arguments apply to rare earth metals. There are several different kinds of rare earth metals, each with different properties. They are widely used, in small amounts, in wind turbines, car batteries and much other technology necessary for climate change. It is often said that this rarity is an obstacle to decarbonizing the world.

This is not quite right. First, rare earth metals are not rare because they are found in only a few places in the world. They are found in many places, all over the world. The word rare in this context means that they are found in very, very small concentrations in the ore where they are mined. This makes them expensive. It also requires mining a vast amount of ore and then processing it with acids. If unregulated, the pollution is intense. In other words, this is more extractavism.[3]

Right now most rare earth metals are mined in China. There is nothing special about the geology of China. Most of them could be mined in the United States, or a range of other countries. Coltan is a good example. It is used in small, hand-held electronic devices. At one point in the civil war in the Congo, the coltan mines were cut off by fighting and for a few weeks there was a global shortage of smart phones, and a delay in the supply of play station. By 2009, many sources were repeating that 80% of coltan reserves were in Africa. Reserves are hard to estimate, but in 2009 about 30% of coltan was being mined in Congo DR. That was because the largest coltan mine in the world, Wodginga in Australia, had closed at the end of 2008. At that point Wodginga had been supplying 30% of the global markets for coltan, but found production uneconomic. Wodginga opened again in 2011, closed in 2017, and is now a lithium mine.  There is almost always an alternative place to mine.[4]

China has two “advantages.” One is that the government can deal brutally with local protestors against pollution. The other advantage is that the Chinese government decided that they would move their economy towards high-tech, high-value industry, and that to do this they need a reliable supply of rare earth metals.

The Chinese government has also made a decision to open mines for a wide range of rare earth metals. This makes China dominant in the market, because it is not possible now to tell what metals will be needed for which industries in ten years’ time. What China can do, and the United States or Australia so far cannot, is decide on public investment in advance of knowing exactly what will be needed.

But as with lithium, there are always alternatives. The main use of rare earth metals now is for screens, smart phones, games consoles, electronics and laptop computers. You can have a phone, a computer or a screen without rare earth metals. But a pinch of the metal gives the screen better resolution, and it allows the device to be made much smaller. Steve Jobs knew what he wanted to do with phones long before he made the I-phone. But Jobs had to wait for the necessary rare metals to come onstream.

All this means that when climate jobs programs need rare earth metals, they can always go back to an older technology. A shortage of rare metals does not mean renewable energy won’t work.

Batteries

We have established that batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Other materials are available. We have established that shortages of lithium do not mean we have to give up on the prospect of all vehicles being electric. Other kinds of batteries can be used. Lithium can be mined from other parts of the world.

In another chapter in my book, I explain why hydrogen from electrolysis with renewable electricity can be used instead in cars instead of batteries. There are serious technical problems, and again, it’s more expensive.

So we don’t have to use lithium in electric batteries. We need not poison the homelands of indigenous people. Moreover, much of the poisoning takes place because mining is unregulated. Regulation could solve that problem.

Which sounds all well and good. But this is to ignore the relations of power that enable destructive extraction in poor countries all over the world. Is it naïve to think we can do anything about that?

Well, as things stand it is difficult for local people, or indigenous people, to defend themselves. This is true in Papua New Guinea, but also in Argentina, China and indeed with mountain-top removal in West Virginia. In many parts of the world, international NGOs do encourage local people to campaign against pollution in the media, and to take out court cases, in countries far away. Sometimes this works, but the record is not good, and it takes years. Moreover, local people lose control of their campaign, which means the foreign NGO and lawyers can settle whenever they decide to, on whatever terms they accept. [5]

Agitation and organization inside the country can have a larger effect. In 2020, a court ruling in Chile in support of the indigenous communities brought lithium mining there to a halt, and may stop it altogether.

All this is worth fighting for. But most of my book is about how we can fight for and establish a public sector climate jobs service in each country. And if we win that – a big if – the problem is simpler. Then it would become possible to challenge the destructive power of extractive industries. The people whose lives and lands are polluted or drowned, in Bolivia for instance, could appeal for solidarity from the people who work in the new climate service, in France for example.

The balance of forces would be quite different from the way it is now when NGOs attempt to lobby and shame great corporations. The workers in the climate service in France would be unionized.

Union organization is never automatic. But if people cannot organize a union in a public sector service of a million people, and moreover a service that has been won in the teeth of established power by a mass movement of millions, a mass movement in which the unions have been central, a mass movement where everyone knows they are part of a global movement to save the Earth – then, frankly, you cannot organize a union anywhere. Moreover, if we succeed in climate jobs, we will have workforces with a deep pride in their mission to save the Earth.

All of this presumes that the workers in the climate service have job security, and government jobs. As we have seen, there are many other reasons why we need those protections anyway. But in that situation, with those feelings and forces in play, an appeal for solidarity from indigenous people in a river valley somewhere could easily lead workers 8,000 miles away to tell their management: “We will use lithium from somewhere else. Or another material. Or hydrogen fuel cells. We are not working with lithium that has blood on it.”

Similar arguments apply to almost all other cases of extractive industry. Workers who offer each other solidarity can turn a race to the bottom into a race to the top. And if that feels unlikely to you, it is because you live now, here, on this Earth. If we can do it, the process of saving that Earth will change what people can do and imagine.

In sum, the energy transition right now is powered, in many places, by appalling destruction and poisoning in the extraction of raw materials. It does not have to be that way.


[1] Jeffrey Webber, 2017, The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left, London: Pluto; and Mike Gonzalez, 2019, The Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America, both provide good guides to the complexity and contradictions of the Morales’ government, which was the product of a great mass movement and deeply constrained by neoliberalism. But politics is changing again in Latin America, and good up to the minute analysis is Pablo Solon, 2020, “Why Lucho and David won the Bolivian elections,” Systematical Alternatives, Oct. 19.

[2] “Lithium,” US Geological Service, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January, 2020.

[3] David Abraham, 2015, The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, New Haven: Yale University Press, is brilliant.

[4] Michael Nest, 2011, Coltan, Cambridge: Polity, 16.

[5] Stuart Kirsch, Mining Capitalism, Berkeley: University of California Press, chapter 2 is very good on this.

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12 Comments

  • Despite the title it’s somewhat unclear how commited the suthor is to the notion that transportation could be electrified. In some of the author’s past presentations (available on YouTube) he clearly advocates for a massive shift towards public transit; no mention of EVs. The battery “problem” is a big issue but not the only one with any attempt towards a one-to-one swap out of the current internal combustion based vehicles for their electric counterparts; there is nearly as much embedded energy in an EV as an ICE, the tires and many of the plastics are petroleum based, the roadsways they run on are usually asphalt, again a petroleum product. Further, most heavy diesel vehicles will not easilly be electrified; take a look at the many articles and book by A.J. Friedemann who blogs at energyskeptic.com. Also NZ Prof. Susan Krumdieck’s Transition Engineering site transitionengineering.org (also The Big Do lecture on YouTube). There are viable paths towards a good life that also mitigates the current ecocidal economic activities that are driving the climate chaos and species extinction but not for mass use of personal automobiles nor fast air travel.

  • The unabashed technophilia in the arguments put forward is merely Silicon Valley plus Socialism. Nothing in the above summary leads me to believe that a socialist world with economic growth and similar levels of energy use would be any more people- , nature- or climate-friendly than the present capitalist world. There are numerous non-sequiturs and disconnected arguments, such as:

    “hydrogen from electrolysis with renewable electricity can be used instead in cars instead of batteries… So we don’t have to use lithium in electric batteries” Yet: “There are serious technical problems, and again, it’s more expensive” which mean what, exactly, as to why hydrogen isn’t yet used?

    No, I’m completely unconvinced. Our high-energy societies have to drastically and immediately cut our energy use, while at the same time ensuring that the poorer people in those societies are not the ones paying the price for the rich people’s historical energy use. That’s a lot harder and far less attractive than techo-fixes.

    • I completely agree with your criticisms of this article and I find it rather amazing that 50 years after socialists like Barry Commoner and Harry Rothman firmly placed capitalism’s insatiable capacity for continuous economic growth and profound inequality at the core of ecological politics that other socialists can come along and be so blinded by cornucopianism and techno-optimism that they just ignore these issues.

      Does the author think a world “covered with electric vehicles”* will actually be inhabitable? If not, perhaps he needs to devote his skills to helping develop a political strategy that places humanity’s and ecosystems’ well-being at the forefront, a task that I acknowledge that is as difficult as it is urgent.

      *The same author also has advocated that we “cover the world with wind turbines, solar panels and concentrated solar power machines”.

      See my alternative view on growth, agriculture, energy and resources, from 2008 at the link below:

      https://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/03/09/population-control-and-climate-change-part-two-the-socialist-alternative/

      • Philip, your argument may be correct, but your comment is misleading.

        The phrase “covered with electric vehicles,” which you put in quotes, does not appear in this article, nor can it be found in the book Fight the Fire.

        And you provide no source for the other phrase you enclose in quotes and attribute to the author. I very much doubt that the author or anyone else wrote those words.

        This is a straw man argument. I expect better from you.

  • Sorry. This is all very naive and under researched as to the physics and chemistry involved with the decisions that are made as to battery design. There is also no mention of the scale of energy that will need to be replaced as we leave behind fossil Carbon as energy either by decision or eventual depletion. Even with the efficiency gains from a complete electrification of everything (replacement of $200 trillion of built out machines and infrastructure) it is determined that we will still need about half of the current 17.8 TeraWatts average that the world is currently using. This is an unfathomable number. Still 85% supplied by fossil Carbon. And 3 billion people still have wood and dung as their only source of heat and cooking. The attempt to build a 60 kWh replacement for the 1.1 billion light vehicles in the world, and add additional vehicles for the 3 billion more people that want one (but will never have one) would total 90 TWh of batteries. This is also an unfathomable number. Just for light vehicles. Current world production of batteries is .3 TWh per year. This could triple in the coming years and then it still takes 90 years to build that many batteries. Just for cars. But they only last 15 years each. Ect. Energy/ economy/ human population are highly correlated at almost 1:1:1. Things will be much smaller and simpler once again in the future.

    • You are right to point out the importance of scale in a renewable transformation, but the world actually needs more, not less energy than presently delivered, to eliminate energy poverty and have the capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change, not exceeding the 1.5 deg C target of IPCC. My previous comment outlines the potential to achieve this goal. Simply projecting present trends of fossil capitalism is misleading. Radical changes are needed in both the physical and political economies, i.e., an ecosocialist/renewable energy transition. For more depth discussion please see our website: http://theearthisnotforsale.org.

  • Kudo to Jonathan Neale for this contribution. The challenge posed by the extractive industries in a renewable energy transition is serious and he confronts it in this thoughtful article. Here are some other dimensions to this challenge. Recycling rates of the rare earth metals, such as neodymium used in renewable energy technologies, are currently very low. At the same time alternative technologies reducing and even eliminating the use of rare elements are being developed and implemented in wind turbine and energy storage technologies (e.g., Na-S batteries, instead of the lower abundant lithium, as well as liquid air energy storage technology). There is now a vigorous R&D program for dematerialization of efficient photovoltaics technology. Recycling and industrial ecologies powered by wind/solar power have the potential of significantly reducing the need for mining, opening a path to a post-extractivist future. Obviously a strong global regulatory regime is necessary for environmental, worker and community protection. Further, this transition will very likely require progressive demilitarization of global society with the phasing out of the fossil fuel and the military infrastructures, thereby liberating vast quantities of materials, especially metals needed for both renewable energy technology and green cities.

    • “significantly reducing the need for mining, opening a path to a post-extractivist future” – to reduce the need for some mining is not to open much of that path, is it? Recycling materials is itself energy- and resource-intensive. There is no true recycling solution to the mining problem and no circular economy. Massive reduction in energy use by the relatively wealthy of the world is the main part of any solution, not new technologies which, strangely, are always just over the horizon. I’m 55 and I was watching BBC-TV’s Tomorrow’s World series as a child in which fusion energy was proclaimed as the solution to our energy needs but was… ten years away, as it is now.

      • There is a recycling solution to the mining problem and the potential for a circular economy/industrial ecologies. The Earth’s surface is open to energy transfer to and from space, but is effectively closed to mass transfer. Hence the use of fossil fuels and nuclear fission power to drive the economy can be transcended in our open Earth system by sufficient creation of a high-efficiency collection of the solar flux to Earth. Global solar power will then pay its ‘‘entropic debt’’ to space as non-incremental waste heat, without driving us to tipping points towards catastrophic climate change, while facilitating recycling and industrial ecologies phasing out extractivism. See more on the subject in my new book The Global Solar Commons, free download at: https://www.theearthisnotforsale.org/solarcommons.pdf.

        • Jonathan Neale wrote “We have established that batteries do not have to be made out of lithium.”

          I don’t think you have established that
          The physical properties of lithium determine why it’s used in vehicles.
          Lithium is the lightest metal and its has a high electrode potential, which means lithium batteries have a high energy density.
          Reference to older vehicle battery technologies is misleading since while Lead-acid batteries were once used to power cars, they wouldn’t go very far!
          Modern zinc-ion batteries might be efficient for static storage of electrical power, but they’re not really suitable for vehicles, due to weight issues.
          So lithium is the optimum solution.

          The environmental problems caused by mining in the “Lithium triangle” in S. America are mainly due to the lack of water. (Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni actually has a bit too much rainfall for solar evaporation ponds to be effective) But these aren’t key agricultural areas. Nor is Western Australia, where there are large deposits of lithium rock.

          Other areas where pollution from lithium mining a might impinge on agriculture are being opened up, but its potential to reduce C02 emissions more than compensates for this. No mining for metals can occur without some ecological consequences.

          At present its cheaper to mine llithium than to recycle it from old batteries, but the economics will change as more batteries are mass-produced. At which point it may become more like aluminium recycling, which in countries with cheap hydro-electric power accounts for the majority of production.

          Lithium isn’t as common as Aluminium and harder to handle, but it’s feasible to expand a sustainable system of production for the foreseeable future.

          However it’s not ideal for long distance travel since Li-ion batteries add significant weight to cars.
          The optimum range of electric cars is somewhere between 150-200 miles between recharges.
          Travelling further than this is more efficient and faster in an electric train.

          A bigger question is upgrading the electrical grid to supply the increased demand from renewable sources.