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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

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

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.

IndustriALL sets out union goals for decent work in the battery supply chain, organizing in Green Tech

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, November 20, 2020

IndustriALL Global Union represents workers along the entire battery supply chain, (except in China) through its international affiliates in mining, chemicals, energy, electronics, and the automotive sector. Canada’s Unifor is an affiliate. “Due diligence across the battery supply chain” (November 2020) describes that expanding and complex supply chain, from mining to processing to end-use products for batteries, and outlines the union’s aim to research and map it. IndustriALL’s aim is to “create a social dialogue scheme or platform with key stakeholders to achieve decent work for all throughout the supply chain. IndustriALL is the only global union who can coordinate unions around the world and contribute to the policy to achieve decent work around the battery supply chain. The international trade union movement becomes more important than ever. ” A separate post, “Developing a global trade union battery supply chain strategy” ( November 20) outlines further specifics about the union’s strategy and announces: “IndustriALL has applied for funding for a project starting in January 2021 on the battery supply chain across the industrial sectors. In a pilot project IndustriALL intends to collaborate with companies, NGOs and other associations to find out how such an approach can help to genuinely improve the situation workers along the entire battery supply chain.”

GreenTEch Manifesto for Mechanical Engineering

IndustriALL Global Union convened an online seminar on green technology in the mechanical engineering sector in early November 2020 – summarized here. The seminar was the occasion to launch a GreenTech Manifesto, which defines “Green technology” (GreenTech ) as “ any technology that promotes one or more of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN summit in 2015, specifically clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, green industry, innovation and infrastructure, responsible consumption and production and climate action.”

At a previous IndustriALL workshop on Mechanical Engineering and GreenTech in December 2018, the President of Austrian trade union PRO-GE and co-chair of the sector, said: “As mechanical engineers and trade unionists, technology is the most important contribution we can make to mitigating climate change. We need hydro, we need wind, we need solar, we need biomass. And we need strong unions to ensure that energy transition is just.”

The new Greentech Manifesto states: “IndustriALL Global Union and its affiliates need to be alert and present so that green jobs become good jobs with appropriate working and living conditions. To this end the participants at this IndustriALL Global Union GreenTech virtual workshop resolve to: § facilitate exchange between affected affiliates in the sector over new trends, especially focusing on GreenTech, digitization and related developments § organize training for trade union organizers and works councils to develop new methods, strategies and services to approach and recruit new employees at green workplaces § involve especially young workers and women in our work § intensify our efforts to increase trade union power in the affected sectors through organizing and recruiting.”

Moore’s Boorish "Planet of The Humans": An Annotated Collection

By admin - Get Energy Smart Now, April-June 2020

Web Editor's Commentary: We'll just cut right to the chase: Planet of the Humans is an unequivocally horrid film (the fact that it was really the brainchild of that Malthusian quack, Ozzie Zehner, whose dishonesty and bad faith arguments were the target of one of our very earliest commentaries, should be an immediate clue to anyone with any knowledge on the subject of energy transition) and an insult to green anti-capitalists worldwide.

We had originally intended to write a commentary of our own about it, however, as this very extensive bibliography demonstrates, the topic has been covered quite extensively. While this bibliography--for which we've been granted permission to copy on our own site by its author--is extensive, even exhaustive, it is unfortunately not especially well organized (we lack the time and bandwidth to engage in such an effort, and we suspect its author has better things to do as well, so we don't hold it against them).

That said, it is still extremely useful, and in it you'll find ample evidence against the arguments made in the film.

With that in mind, we offer one other addition to this extensive bibliography, and that is a podcast from The Energy Transition Show, specifically Episode 125: Beyond the Planet of the Humans, in which show host, Chris Nelder, and guest, Auke Hoekstra, deconstruct the film's producers' motivations and clearly show that they're making their arguments in bad faith out of a place of bitterness that energy transition, while quite possible, is nevertheless challenging.


For Earth Day 2020, Michael Moore announced 30 days of YouTube access of the Jeff Gibbs written/directed and Michael Moore ‘executive produced’ Planet of the Humans. This free mass release sparked viewership and a discovery that, sigh, this was mediocre propaganda. Like Robert Bryce’s work, this film has the same fundamental flaws:

  • too error-filled for non-educated/knowledgeable people to watch due to misdirection & embedded deceit that might not be evident as the viewer has to be knowledgeable to see the truthiness and deceit.
  • tedious and painful for those already knowledgeable as the core thematics/points aren’t news and it just takes so much effort to wade through the falsehoods and truthiness for having thoughts/perspective that are already out there in discussion.  

This post will provide an updated discussion of some of the better discussions of this boorishly propagandistic mocku-mentary.

A Vision for a Sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030: Unlocking the Full Potential to Power Sustainable Development and Climate Change Mitigation

By staff - World Economic Forum, 2019

The need for urgent and more intensive actions against climate change is broadly recognized. In support of this agenda, this report presents a simple yet profound vision: a circular, responsible and just battery value chain is one of the major near- term drivers to realize the 2°C Paris Agreement goal in the transport and power sectors, setting course towards achieving the 1.5°C goal if complemented with other technologies and collaborative efforts.

With the right conditions in place, batteries are a systemic enabler of a major shift to bring transportation and power to greenhouse gas neutrality by coupling both sectors for the first time in history and transforming renewable energy from an alternative source to a reliable base. According to this report, batteries could enable 30% of the required reductions in carbon emissions in the transport and power sectors, provide access to electricity to 600 million people who currently have no access, and create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world.

This report provides a quantified foundation for a vision about how batteries can contribute to sustainable development and climate change mitigation over the coming decade. The analysis underscores that this opportunity can only be achieved sustainably through a systemic approach across social, environmental and economic dimensions. It outlines key conditions and presents recommendations to realize this potential.

Read the report (Link).

Green Conflict Minerals: The fuels of conflict in the transition to a low-carbon economy

By Clare Church and Alec Crawford - International Institute for Sustainable Development, August 2018

The mining sector will play a key role in the transition toward a low-carbon future.

The technologies required to facilitate this shift, including wind turbines, solar panels and improved energy storage, all require significant mineral and metal inputs and, absent any dramatic technological advances or an increase in the use of recycled materials, these inputs will come from the mining sector. How they are sourced will determine whether this transition supports peaceful, sustainable development in the countries where strategic reserves are found or reinforces weak governance and exacerbates local tensions and grievances.

Through extensive desk-based research, a mapping analysis, stakeholder consultations, case studies and an examination of existing mineral supply chain governance mechanisms, this report seeks to understand how the transition to a low-carbon economy—and the minerals and metals required to make that shift—could affect fragility, conflict and violence dynamics in mineral-rich states.

For the minerals required to make the transition to a low-carbon economy, there are real risks of grievances, tensions and conflicts emerging or continuing around their extraction. In order to meet global goals around sustainable development and climate change mitigation, while contributing to lasting peace, the supply chains of these strategic minerals must be governed in a way that is responsible, accountable and transparent.

Read the report (Link).

East Bay Community Energy Local Development Business Plan (LDBP)

By staff - EastBay Community Energy, 2018

This plan was shaped by community organizers including several union workers and is an example of what a community and/or worker run CCA looks like.

The Local Development Business Plan (LDBP) is intended to develop a comprehensive frame-work for accelerating the development of clean energy assets within Alameda County. The LDBP explores how EBCE can contribute to fostering local economic benefits, such as job creation, customer cost- savings, and community resi-ience. The LDBP also identifies opportunities for development of local clean energy resources, explains how to achieve EBCE’s communit y benefits goals, and provides strategies for local workforce development for adoption by the EBCE Board of Directors.

Read the report (PDF).

Clean Energy Investments for New York State: An Economic Framework for Promoting Climate Stabilization and Expanding Good Job Opportunities

By Robert Pollin, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, and Jeannette Wicks-Lim - Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) - November 2017

This study examines the prospects for transformative clean energy investment projects for New York State. Taken as a whole, these investments should be understood as a major initiative within the state to advance the fundamental goal of global climate stabilization. These investments should be undertaken by both the public and private sectors in New York State, supported by a combination of public investments and incentives for private investors.

This study builds from New York State’s existing Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) project and the New York State Energy Plan, which fleshed out a policy agenda based on the REV project. Governor Andrew Cuomo first presented the REV program in April 2014 and reaffirmed New York State’s commitments in June 2017. The primary goals of the REV program, which are targeted to be achieved by 2030 in New York State, include: 1) a 40 percent reduction in all greenhouse gas emissions; 2) generating 50 percent of all electricity from renewable energy sources; and 3) achieving a 23 percent improvement in energy efficiency in buildings relative to the 2012 level.

The REV goals and the State Energy Plan are unquestionably significant starting points for advancing clean energy policies in New York State. But they are not adequate to enable the state to achieve emissions reduction goals that meet the challenges we face with global climate change. As such, this study works from a more ambitious set of goals, both in terms of emissions reductions and in achieving broader positive impacts with respect to expanding job opportunities and raising living standards throughout New York State.

The first specific aim on which we focus in this study is to achieve, by 2030, a 50 percent reduction below the 1990 level in all human-caused CO2 emissions in New York State, along with comparable reductions in methane emissions resulting from natural gas extraction.

The second, equally important, goal is to achieve the 2030 CO2 emission reduction standard while also expanding job opportunities and raising average living standards throughout New York State. The expansion of clean energy investments will need to focus on 1) dramatically improving energy efficiency standards in New York’s stock of buildings, automobiles and public transportation systems, and industrial production processes; and 2) equally dramatically expanding the supply of clean renewable energy sources—primarily wind, solar, and geothermal power—available at competitive prices to all sectors of New York State’s economy.

In addition to these goals for 2030, this study also explores the prospects for achieving the longer-term aim of bringing CO2 emissions in New York State down to zero by 2050, while, again, concurrently expanding job opportunities and raising average living standards throughout the state.

Read the Report (PDF).

A closer look at electric vehicle growth: impact on pollution, and labour conditions in the mines supplying raw materials

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, August 23, 2017

The summer started with several “good news” stories about the surge of electric vehicles, such as “Starting in 2019, Volvo will use electricity to power every new model” from the Washington Post (July 5) , quoting Volvo’s CEO :  “This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car.”  Bloomberg Business Week, summarizing the findings of its latest New Energy forecast,  stated on July 7, “in just eight years, electric cars will be as cheap as gasoline vehicles, pushing the global fleet to 530 million vehicles by 2040″, and “Electric cars will outsell fossil-fuel powered vehicles within two decades as battery prices plunge, turning the global auto industry upside down and signaling economic turmoil for oil-exporting countries” .  On July 6,  France announced   it would end the sale of gas and diesel cars by 2040 ,  and on July 26 the U.K. released its Clean Air Plan, which included  a ban on the sale of new diesel and gas cars after 2040, with only electric vehicles available after that.

Response to the U.K. announcement is mixed.  In “Electric cars are not the solution to air pollution” Professor Frank Kelly, a professor of environmental health at King’s College London and chair of the government’s  Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants states that “The government’s plan does not go nearly far enough,” “Our cities need fewer cars, not just cleaner cars.”  In his role as a member of  the Centre for London’s commission on the future of the capital’s roads and streets  ,    Professor Kelly provides more detail about the problem of particle pollution and states:  “London should lead in showing electric cars will not tackle air pollution”  in The Guardian (August 4).  His conclusion: “The safe and efficient movement of people around the city can only be achieved through a clean and expanded mass transit system served by buses, overground trains and the underground system – and as much active transport in the form of walking and cycling as is feasibly possible.”

Others are raising issues about electric vehicles on other grounds, specifically the environmental costs  and labour conditions of producing the lithium ion batteries that power them.  These are not new concerns:  Carla Lipsig Mumme and Caleb Goods raised the flag in June 2015 with “The battery revolution is exciting, but remember they pollute too”   in The Conversation.   In January 2016, Amnesty International published a detailed documentation of the hazardous working conditions and the use of child labour in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in  This is what we die for: Human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo power the global trade in cobalt  . (Cobalt is also used in mobile phones, laptop computers, and other portable electronic devices). The report  is available in English, French and Chinese from this link .

Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State

By J. Muin Cha, Ph.D. and Lara Skinner, Ph.D.- The Worker Institute - June 2017

Economic inequality in New York is rising. Currently, the state has the second highest level of economic inequality in the country. Unequal job growth across the state and stagnant wages in several sectors are two of the main contributors to rising inequality. While the state overall has seen several years of employment growth, there are stronger employment gains in New York City than in other parts of the state still suffering from job losses and stagnant employment levels. Additionally, in many sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, wages are not increasing at the same pace as inflation, leaving many workers with paychecks that fail to cover basic household costs.

At the same time, New York is falling far short of its necessary greenhouse gas pollution reductions. To stop catastrophic climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, which would require four times the current annual emissions reduction rate. By 2050, New York State’s emissions must be only a fraction of what they are now to meet the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s targets set to prevent irreversible damage. We are far from that target. In the transportation sector, emissions are actually increasing and energy sector emissions may also be increasing given likely underestimation of methane emissions from natural gas.

New York State can take action now to protect New Yorkers from the worst effects of climate change, and do our part in reducing global emissions, while also fighting against growing economic inequality. Extreme weather, such as Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, is predicted to become more the norm, not the exception. These recent extreme weather events highlighted New York’s deep inequality: some could afford to leave the city or move into hotels when their residences flooded while others were left stranded.

Adopting a bold and aggressive plan to invest in climate-addressing infrastructure can be an important step towards simultaneously addressing the crises of inequality and climate change head on and position New York as a national leader in charting the path to a low-carbon, equitable economy. The recommendations presented below aim to create good, high-road jobs that provide familysustaining wages and benefits for communities across the state. These proposals could also result in meaningful emissions reductions and put New York on the path to building an equitable clean-energy economy that can work for all New Yorkers. The authors hope this report helps spark additional research and policy development on how to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse inequality by protecting workers and creating good, family-sustaining jobs in new lowcarbon sectors. Future research, in particular, could perform a detailed analysis of the cost of job creation strategies in low-carbon sectors, how to finance these strategies, and a cost-benefit analysis that includes the cost of potential job loss and reduced economic activity in high-carbon sectors.

Read the Report (Link).

Hoodwinked in the Hothouse

From the Introduction:

Desperate to avoid climate regulation that may affect profits, polluting corporations are working hand-in-hand with governments, presenting a dizzying array of false solutions that deepen inequalities in our societies. There is a clear agenda: Manage the climate crisis without compromising profits, the power structures or the economic system that got us here, even if that means exacerbating the problem. Wall Street financiers, the synthetic biology industry, “green” venture capitalists and a host of others are jumping on the “we care about the climate, too!” bandwagon.

These actors have reduced one of the clearest consequences of an unsustainable system into a mere technical problem that can be “efficiently” dealt with through market-based solutions. This market fundamentalism diverts attention away from the root causes of the problem, encouraging us to imagine a world with price tags on rivers, forests, biodiversity and communities’ territories, all in the name of “dealing with the climate crisis.” At the heart of all false solutions is an avoidance of the big picture: the root causes.

False solutions are constructed around the invisible scaffolding that maintains the dominant economic, cultural and political systems—the idea that economic growth is both desirable and inevitable; that progress means industrial development; that Western science and technology can solve any problem; that profits will motivate and the markets will innovate. Most of us in the Global North, whether sensitized to it or not, are participants and, at times, even take comfort in this world view. Sadly, many find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of a globalized economy built upon the unsteady legs of expanding empire, ecological erosion and exploitation of workers and communities.

We can take steps, large and small, to stop the climate crisis. What we cannot afford to do is go down the wrong road. Hoodwinked in the Hothouse is an easy and essential guide to navigating the landscape of false solutions—the cul-de-sacs on the route to a just and livable climate future.

--Gopal Dayaneni, Movement Generation: Justice and Ecology Project

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