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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.

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).

Trade unions and climate change: the need for a programmatic shift

By Asbjørn Wahl - Global Labour Column, November 2019

Climate change is a trade union issue. That is what we increasingly, and rightly, have been told by international trade unions leaders over the last ten to fifteen years. While the inter-governmental negotiations on climate change can be dated back to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and the first so-called Conference of the Parties (COP) in Berlin, 1995, it was only about 15 years ago that trade union representation at the COP conferences reached around 100 delegates. Since that, representation has been increasing, and we have seen a growing trade union activity on climate change issues.

This activity has focussed particularly on the social dimension of climate change and climate change policies. Thus, the focus has been more on the effects on workers of climate change prevention and mitigation than on policies to really cut fossil fuel emissions. However, trade unions, as well as governmental bodies, cannot be assessed only on the basis of their activities, but first and foremost on what has been achieved in terms of climate change prevention and mitigation – and the social consequences. In this regard, we must admit that the trade union movement has not been able to take a lead in the climate change struggle.

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