You are here

South America

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.

Rights in a Changing Climate: Human Rights Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

By staff - Center for International Environmental Law, December 5, 2019

Climate change and human rights are not separate concepts, but rather go hand-in-hand. In line with the increased recognition in human rights bodies, countries around the world, and public discourse, Rights in a Changing Climate demonstrates the fundamental links between human rights and climate change and documents the growing momentum within the UN climate regime to articulate the legally binding duties of States to protect, respect, and promote human rights in the context of the climate crisis.

Rights in a Changing Climate showcases the increasing number of explicit and implicit references to different human rights in climate agreements and policies. It reveals that rights-based action is being discussed with greater frequency and with ever more explicit instructions for how States must incorporate a rights-based approach to climate action.

“The climate crisis is a human rights crisis. This doesn’t change when you step into the halls of the UNFCCC. Over the past decade, we’ve seen increasing momentum behind the integration of human rights and climate change under the UNFCCC,” says Erika Lennon, Senior Attorney at CIEL. “Going forward, human rights must be foundational to all climate action. Incorporating the voices and knowledge of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities is vital to ensuring a rights-based approach to climate action and most effectively limiting global temperature rise to below 1.5°C.”

“CIEL’s report provides a vital guidebook for States as they consider their climate action plans and submit revised Nationally Determined Contributions early next year,” says André Weidenhaupt, Director General at the Ministry of the Environment, Climate and Sustainable Development of Luxembourg. “Solving the climate crisis requires the protection of human rights.”

The report concludes with an urgent call to action. “The greatest threat to human rights is climate change itself. As the climate crisis worsens, so do the threats to the realization of human rights. Parties must therefore urgently increase ambition to fulfill their legal obligations under human rights law. To ensure that Parties do not undermine human rights in doing so or act on climate at the expense of the rights of local communities, they should build on this momentum and place human rights at the center of climate action.”

Read the report (PDF).

Reflections on the First Ecosocialist International and the Academic Left

By Ingrid Elísabet Feeney - Climate Justice Project, June 7, 2018

“Socialism is not a thing but a process.” – Richard Levins

“Sí hay un socialismo del siglo XXI: y se llama ecosocialismo.” (Yes there’s a 21st century socialism: and it’s called ecosocialism). The words, painted in strokes of white gold, leapt in bold relief against their faded blue background: a concrete wall about two meters tall which encircled the central meeting square of Agua Negra, Yaracuy, Venezuela. Dusk had fallen and the material boundaries of the wall seemed to melt into the thick indigo of the heady, sweltering tropical night, its message appearing as if emblazoned from stardust on the infinite horizon of the sky itself. Across the square, on the opposite wall, another message. A frenetic scrawl of soil black upon bright, vegetal green: “Hasta la victoria siembren!” (Sow towards victory!).

 The square was lined with long folding tables piled high with plantains and chili peppers, handmade clothing and works of art, artisanal soaps, second-hand toys, and musical instruments. Dense throngs of people, young and old, crowded around the tables to negotiate barter transactions: soap for plantains; bottles of home-made chili sauce for a well-loved drum. Groups of children dressed in colorful garments expressing their afro-descendent heritage lined up in preparation to ascend the plaza’s built-in stage, their peals of laughter punctuating gathering drum beats, heralding the performance to come. Amidst the ebullient chaos of this celebratory trueque[1], a crowd of globally-renown and up-and-coming revolutionaries circulated, exchanging exhausted yet exhilarated expressions of gratitude and affection: a Peruvian peasant resistance leader shook hands with a Kurdish freedom fighter. A Kenyan human rights organizer embraced an Amazonian land defender, laughing through her tears. The collective energy of the crowd was electric— they had just declared the First Ecosocialist International.

Resist-Occupy-Produce

By Leroy Maisiri and Lucien van der Walt - Pambazuka News, May 24, 2018

The authors use the example of the working class in Argentina to demonstrate how social movements and working people can create alternative models of production that serve the interests of people and not of those of capitalism. 

Introduction

The remarkable “recovered factories” (fábricas recuperadas) movement saw hundreds of closed factories reopened by the workers, run democratically, creating jobs and helping working class and poor communities. It showed that there is only so much protesting can accomplish – at some point you have to create something new. But it also shows it is essential that such alternative sites of production form alliances with, and become embedded, in other movements of the working class, poor and peasantry, including unions and unemployed movements. This assists them in building larger struggles, and provides them with some protection from the capitalist market and the state.

It is, meanwhile, important for unions and social movements to start to systematically develop alternatives to capitalist—and state—run social services and media. However, it is simply impossible to escape capitalism by creating cooperatives, social centres or alternative spaces – almost all means of production remain in ruling class hands, secured by force and backed by huge bureaucracies. It is essential to build a mass revolutionary front of unions and other movements, embracing popularly-run social services, media and production, and aiming at complete socialisation of the economy and of decision-making through a revolutionary rupture.

Documentaries like The Take—a movie that has been widely seen in South African labour and left circles—have drawn global attention to a remarkable challenge to neo-liberalism. In Argentina, in South America, economic crisis saw a collapse in working class conditions. High unemployment, low wages, attacks on social services: we are familiar with such things in South Africa. But something happened, which is very different. In Argentina, from the 1990s, something new started.

Vivir Bien: Old Cosmovisions and New Paradigms

By Pablo Solón - Great Transition Initiative, February 2018

The concept of Vivir Bien (or Buen Vivir) gained international attention in the late twentieth century as people searched for alternatives to the rampage of neoliberalism. Imperfect translations of the Andean concepts of suma qamaña and sumaq kawsay, Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir reflect an indigenous cosmovision that emphasizes living in harmony with nature and one another. As these ideas’ popularity has grown, however, their meaning has been compromised. Governments in Bolivia and Ecuador incorporated Vivir Bien and Buen Vivir, respectively, into their constitutions and governing agendas on paper, but not in spirit. Rather than radical alternatives to the dominant paradigm of development and progress, these concepts have become new branding for (un)sustainable development. The lessons are clear: to avoid state cooptation, truly revolutionary change must be based on emancipation and self-determination from below. And to succeed in our interdependent world, proponents of Vivir Bien must link up with advocates of complementary global movements on the path of a better future for all.

Xapuri Declaration: “We reject any form of climate colonialism”

By Chris Lang - Redd Monitor, June 20, 2017

From 26 to 28 May 2017, a meeting took place in Xapuri, in the state of Acre, Brazil. The meeting brought together Apurinã, Huni Kui, Jaminawa, Manchineri and Shawadawa indigenous peoples, representatives of traditional communities, rubber tappers, academics and supporting organisations. The meeting’s theme was, “The effects of environmental / climatic policies on traditional populations”.

The meeting was supported by Friends of the Earth International, the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI), the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and the World Rainforest Movement.

In a short report about the meeting, Daniel Santini of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, writes that the participants reject the term “carbon credits”, because they are actually “pollution credits”. Trading pollution makes the climate problem worse by giving the illusion that something is being done, when in fact it allows pollution to continue.

Santini writes,

Instead of policies based on restrictions on the way of life of traditional peoples, the participants argued that the political-economic model of occupation of the region should be changed, with the suspension of generous public financing for agricultural expansion, industrial logging, and monoculture tree plantations.

Days before the meeting, in Rio Branco, the capital of Acre, corporate and state government representatives met to discuss the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This is the aviation industry’s disastrous proposal to continue polluting, while using carbon credits to “offset” its emissions.

The World Bank is in talks with the International Civil Aviation Organization about using REDD credits in CORSIA.

Acre is one of the states from which California is looking to buy REDD credits as part of its cap-and-trade scheme. In April 2016, Dave Clegern, a Public Information Officer at the California Air Resources Board, said that,

“The projects that we’re looking at are supported by the locals. They are what is known as sector-based projects, which means that they would be run in conjunction with the government of that country which would provide the opportunity for regular monitoring, verification of the quality of the offsets.”

REDD-Monitor asked Clegern some questions about this statement, including whether a process of free, prior, and informed consent had been carried out about REDD in Acre. And if not, which “locals” was Clegern talking about?

REDD-Monitor is still waiting for Clegern’s reply.

Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation

Edited by Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean - Transnational Institute, June 2017

You would be forgiven, especially if you live in Europe, to think that public services are by nature expensive, inefficient, maybe even somewhat outdated, and that reforming them to adapt to new challenges is difficult. It would seem natural to assume – because this is what most politicians, media and so-called experts tell us continuously – that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for services of an ever lower standard, and that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. It would seem that private companies will inevitably play an ever larger role in the provision of public services, because everything has a price, because politicians have lost sight of the common good and citizens are only interested in their own individual pursuits.

This book, however, tells a completely different story. Sometimes it may feel as though we are living in a time when profit and austerity are our only horizons. In reality, below the radar, thousands of politicians, public officials, workers and unions, and social movements are working to reclaim or create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to our social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Our research shows there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services worldwide in recent years, some of them involving several cities. In total there have been more than 1600 cities in 45 countries involved in (re)municipalisation. And these (re)municipalisations generally succeed-ed in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

Read the text (PDF).

A just transition for all: Can the past inform the future?

By various - International Labour Office, 2015

2015 is a decisive year for global agreements on Sustainable Development and climate change. The ILO calls for a just transition for all towards a greener and more socially sustainable economy. This Journal is focussing on drawing lessons from a few transition experiences in order to analyse how successfully (or not) these processes were managed in the past and how future transitions might be handled in a just manner. Challenges such as policy coherence, consultations and participation by all relevant stakeholders are addressed and lessons learned on these issues are highlighted in the Journal.

Read the report (Link).

Thousands of Workers Begin Strike at World’s Biggest Copper Mine

By Cecilia Jamasmie - Mining.Com, September 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Close to 2,800 miners at Chile's Escondida, the world's biggest copper mine, began a 24-hour “warning” strike on Monday morning as they seek to negotiate better working conditions, Publimetro reports (in Spanish).

Workers belonging to the Sindicato No. 1 union said if talks with the mine owners, BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) and Rio Tinto (LON:RIO), don’t bear fruit, they’ll stage an indefinite stoppage beginning Wednesday morning.

The 1.2 million tonnes a year operation, located in Chile's Atacama Desert, also provides around 1,900 contract workers with full time jobs.

The news did not affect the red metal prices. London copper futures, in fact, fell to their weakest level in months, losing 1.46% to trade at $6,735 a tonne by 0648 GMT. Earlier they had fallen falling to $6,722.50, the lowest since June.

So far this year copper prices have tumbled more than 8%.

Escondida’s Sindicato No. 1 union carried out a similar 24-hour stoppage over pay and conditions last year. That dispute was quickly settled, but during a two-week strike in the summer of 2011 output of more than 40,000 tonnes of copper was lost, forcing operator BHP to declare force majeure.

News of the strike comes not long after BHP said the mine could substantially increase total output next year to 1.27 million tonnes.

The mine which also produces gold and silver as by-products plays a key role in the Chilean economy, accounting for about for 2.5% of the country's gross domestic product. According to Rio Tinto’s website, in 2012 the mine generated 5% of global copper production and around 15% of the South American nation output.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.