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Jonathan Neale

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.

Disaster Environmentalism 1: Looking the Future in the Face

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 5, 2019

“Barring a miracle, [a global average temperature rise above pre-industrial levels of] 2 degrees C must inevitably be substantially breached.” Nothing that has happened since the 2015 Paris climate conference has “suggested any reason for doubting that judgement”.

Disaster Environmentalism 3: What to Do

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 5, 2019

The gap in disaster environmentalist thinking, the absence of any kind of sense of how society changes, or could be changed, explains its’ exponents political tactics, in my view.

Non-violent direct action (NVDA), which has become a hallmark of XR, is seen as a way of pushing the existing political system to change. For disaster environmentalism, it’s a last ditch attempt: if this fails, only collapse – whatever that means – awaits, and social renewal can only be achieved through “deep adaptation”.

This is underpinned by misunderstandings and half-thought-out ideas about how society changes, in my view.

The danger of co-optation

Read writes that XR wants and needs “to transform the whole existing system […] within years, not decades. Such transformation will mean that many economic interests get challenged, or indeed ended”. This “attempt to rapidly change the entire economic, social and political system” will be far more difficult than the task of previous movements; “the vested interests opposing us are vast, as are the ideologies that have to be overcome or transformed.” And what he describes as his “key point”:

Women and black people could be accommodated into the existing system; in this way the task of the Suffragettes and of the Civil Rights Movement, while hard, was doable. But what we want – need – is to transform the whole existing system, not merely to allow excluded people access to it.

This shows a breathtaking lack of understanding about how the political representatives of capitalism work to co-opt, subvert and control social movements.

To state the completely obvious, while the specific demands of the Suffragettes, for women’s right to vote, has been won, countless aspects of the repression of women have been reproduced by capitalism in new, more sophisticated forms. Women’s legal rights to abortion is currently under threat in a series of countries.

As for the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the gains it won in terms of voting rights for black Americans have been under vicious attack from that time to this. Gerrymandering, ID requirements, laws depriving former prisoners of the vote, and more blatant measures are used across the USA to stop black people from voting. Rights are won in struggle, defended and extended in struggle, and can be lost in struggle.

Disaster Environmentalism 2: Roads to a Post-Growth Economy

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 5, 2019

The disaster environmentalists’ hopes for the future rest not only on “deep adaptation”, but on acceptance that we need to live in a “post growth world”. Rupert Read writes:

It is crucial that we resist growthism, the very widespread drive to keep the economy ‘growing’. For (perpetual) growthism is a perpetual obstacle to collective sanity, to facing the reality of [ecological and social] limits. […] And green growthism is merely a subset of growthism.[1] […]

Society can not afford more growth, Read argues; progress towards understanding this is “glacially slow”. And so:

It still seems, tragically, far more likely that growth will end because of collapse than because of informed decision.

Yes and no, in my view. “Economic growth”, as manifested by global capitalism, is completely unsustainable. “Green growth”, or “socialist growth”, are no substitutes. Our challenge to the economic system must open the way for a society based on human happiness and fulfilment, values completely at odds with – and distorted and defaced by – the rich-country consumerist ideology that helps to justify ever-expanding material production. But, unlike Read, I believe that the way “growth” ends is still to play for.

In my view (not new, from a socialist), all this means challenging capitalism, along with the state and political structures that protect its interests. On that, the disaster environmentalists are agnostic. They talk up the need for systemic change, but combine this with tame, almost naïve, claims about how to challenge the system.

One Million Climate Jobs: Moving South Africa Forward on a Low-Carbon, Wage-Led, and Sustainable Path

By Brian Ashley, et. al. - One Million Climate Jobs - December 2016

The One Million Climate Jobs Campaign is an alliance of labour, social movements and popular organisations in South Africa that is campaigning for the creation of a million climate jobs as part of a collective approach to the crisis of unemployment and climate change. The Campaign was launched in 2011 and since then has been mobilising thousands of South Africans around real solutions to slowing down climate change, protecting the natural environment, improving the quality of life for all and moving towards a sustainable development path. Climate change will exacerbate inequality and poverty because it reduces access to food, water, energy and housing. Thus it is vital that social justice struggles around these issues incorporate struggles around climate change.

This booklet is a follow-up, six years later, to the first booklet that was produced in 2011. It is based on well- researched solutions for how South Africa can immediately begin a just transition, away from the Minerals-Energy Complex that continues to dominate the South African capitalist economy, to a low carbon economy in which the basic needs of communities are met in an equitable, sustainable and affordable way.

It recognizes that in these six years there have been many developments – for instance, renewable energy is now firmly established as part of the energy mix (although still a minor part); retrofitting buildings, and the development of environmentally friendly construction methods, is being developed, and the Rapid Bus Transit system is being slowly implemented in some municipalities.

But most of these solutions are being pursued within the logic of the market. It is not possible, we would argue, within these market parameters, to respond adequately to the enormous challenges facing us – what is needed is a publicly-driven solution for the shift to a sustainable, low-carbon future. The research that this booklet is based on begins to set out what such a transition could look like. We hope that it will be an important contribution to the ongoing work of building a political movement to struggle around these issues.

Download (PDF).

Global Climate Jobs

By various - Global Climate Jobs Network, September 2015

We have to stop climate change, and we have to do it quickly. To do it, we will need 120 million new jobs globally for at least twenty years.

There are now campaigns in several countries fighting for mass government programs for climate jobs. Most of them started with union support, and all of them are trying to build an alliance of unions, environmentalists, NGOs, and faith groups.This booklet has been produced by several of these campaigns, because we want people in other countries to do the same.

The first half of this booklet explains the idea of climate jobs in broad strokes. But each country is different, so the second half of this booklet sketches what climate jobs would mean in South Africa, Norway, Canada, New York State, and Britain.

Read the report (English PDF) | (French PDF) | (Spanish PDF).

One Million Climate Jobs: Tackling the Environmental and Economic Crises

By Jonathan Neale, et. al. - Campaign against Climate Change, 2014

This booklet is about hope in the face of crisis. The economy is not working. Mass unemployment has lasted for years, and will last for many more. And at some point gradual climate change is going to turn into swift catastrophe. Dangerous climate change is a consequence of the work of the hands and brains of many men and women. It will take the hands and brains of many men and women to undo the damage. So many climate activists, and several trade unions, have decided to fight to make the government create one million climate jobs. This report sets out our case. To halt climate change we need drastic cuts in the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we put into the air. That means leaving most of the existing reserves of high carbon fuels – coal, oil and gas – in the ground. There are thousands of things we need to do to make that a reality. But three of them will make most of the difference.

We need workers to build enough wind power, solar power, wave power and tidal power to meet all our energy needs. We need workers to insulate and retrofit all our existing homes and buildings in order to conserve energy. And we need workers to run a massive public transport system powered by renewable electricity. We have people who need jobs, and jobs that must be done. So we want the government to hire a million people to do new climate jobs now in an integrated National Climate Service.Our estimate is that those workers could cut our CO2 emissions by 86% in twenty years. We can also create another half a million jobs in the supply line. And we can guarantee a new job to anyone who loses their job because of these changes.

This booklet explains how we can do all of this, and why we must. ‘Climate jobs’ are not the same as ‘green jobs’. Some green jobs help the climate, but ‘green jobs’ can mean anything – park rangers, bird wardens, pollution control, or refuse workers. All these jobs are necessary, but they do not stop climate change. Climate jobs are jobs that lead directly to cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases, and so slow down climate change. For instance, workers who build wind farms replace power stations that burn coal or oil. Workers who insulate buildings reduce the oil and gas we burn. Bus drivers reduce the amount of oil we burn in cars. We want a million new jobs. We don’t want to add up existing jobs and new jobs and say that now we have a million climate jobs. We don’t mean jobs that will be ‘created’ by some mysterious market process by 2030. We want the government to hire 90,000 new workers each month to do new climate jobs. In a year we will have a million new jobs.

Read the report (PDF).

Our Jobs, Our Planet: Transport Workers and Climate Change

By Jonathan Neale - European Transport Workers Federation (ETF), October 2011

This is a report for the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) on the implications of climate change for transport workers and their unions. This report tries to do four things:

  • Start the debate on climate change.
  • Prepare unions to act on climate change, not only react to the agendas of employers and governments.
  • Offer realistic transport solutions that meet the needs of transport workers and all humanity.
  • Propose ideas for what transport unions can do next.

This report is part of a process that began with a report by the ETF on Trade Union Vision and Sustainable Transport. In 2011, this was followed by a report for the International Transport Federation. Unions write many reports to explain our case to governments and the media. This report is not like that. This one is for union members and leaders. Climate change is new, and union activists need to understand it ourselves. So this report tries to explain
complex scientific, technical and political matters in clear language.

Read the report (PDF).

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