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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.

Toward A Green New Future

By Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen - Socialism 2020, July 26, 2020

Join Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen for a discussion of the Green New Deal and the future we can build out of our crisis-ridden present. This event is part of the Socialism 2020 Virtual conference. See more at socialismconference.org.

Going Slowly to 100% Renewables … by 2025?

By Dan Fischer - Peace News, April 5, 2020

It has been 55 years since the social ecologist Murray Bookchin argued that “wind, water, and solar power” (hereafter, WWS) could “amply meet the needs of a decentralized society” and eventually replace all fossil, nuclear, and bioenergy sources. The alternative, he warned, would be a future of “radioactive wastes,” “lethal air pollution,” “rising atmospheric temperatures,” “more destructive storm patterns,” and “rising sea levels.” Having declined to tear down its smokestacks, society has entered Bookchin’s dreaded scenario and, according to today’s scientists, accelerates toward “hothouse Earth,” “doomsday,” and even an “annihilation of all life.”

The urgency for reaching 100% WWS can’t be overstated. Leading climate scientists report that “tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2°C of warming,” and today’s level is already at 1.2° and rapidly climbing. Moreover, society has pushed Earth past four other “planetary boundaries.” While all energy sources have an impact, small-scale WWS sources are by far the cleanest option available, and they also doesn’t involve nuclear power’s existential weapons proliferation risks.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that many Green New Deal supporters call for 100% WWS by 2030 or sooner. Activists in the United States and the United Kingdom are calling for zero emissions nationally by 2025, a stringent deadline that requires a very rapid phase-out of fossil and bioenergies and that necessarily excludes the lengthy construction of new nuclear power facilities and large-scale hydroelectric dams. The journalist Hazel Healy has even written about achieving zero emissions worldwide by 2025. To be sure, these targets are mind-bogglingly ambitious compared to, say, Joe Biden’s mid-century target. But if anything, 2025 is already pushing our luck from a climate and ecological perspective.

Wondering about the potential for rapidly reaching 100% renewable energy, I reached out to two of the most optimistic and two of the most pessimistic scholars on the technologies. Based on these conversations, I offer the following suggestion. Achieving 100% WWS within five to ten years, if it can be done at all, would likely require slowing down the industrialized world. It would mean abandoning what Michelle Boulous Walker calls today’s “culture of haste” and “relentless demand to decide, respond and act.” Instead of a frantic construction of hydrogen-powered airplanes and concrete-intensive high-speed rail, it would mean making most production local and most travel leisurely-paced. It would mean switching from full-time jobs to part-time crafts and hobbies, from patenting technology to sharing it, and from GDP to something like the Indigenous Environmental Network’s proposed “Index for Living Well.” While it’s common to read of “roadmaps” to WWS, we would probably get to the destination sooner with maps of biking trails and bus routes.

A Just(ice) Transition is a Post-Extractive Transition: Centering the Extractive Frontier in Climate Justice

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello - War on Want and London Mining Network, September 2019

While the global majority disproportionately suffer the impacts of the climate crisis and the extractivist model, theGlobal North’s legacy of colonialism, the excess of the world’s wealthiest, and the power of large corporations are responsible for these interrelated crises.

The climate change mitigation commitments thus far made by countries in the Global North are wholly insufficient; not only in terms of emissions reductions, but in their failure to address the root causes of the crisis – systemic and intersecting inequalities and injustices. This failure to take inequality and injustice seriously can be seen in even the most ambitious models of climate mitigation.

This report sets out to explore the social and ecological implications of those models.

Read the report (PDF).

Solar Energy Is Renewable, But Is it Environmentally Just?

Dustin Mulvaney interviewed by Dharna Noor - Real News Network (Part 1 | Part 2), August 26, 2019

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The solar industry has been soaring over the past several years. The US is now home to some two million solar installations. Solar energy now provides about a fifth of California’s power and it makes sense that environmentalists champion the industry. Almost a third of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, so renewable energy sources like this are crucial.

But in a new book, our next guest shows that while “the net social and environmental benefits of solar are uncontested— more jobs, higher quality of life, and much less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions— the industry supply chain still poses problems for specific communities, ecosystems and landscapes.”

Decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste)

By staff - International Labour Organization, April 2019

At its 329th Session (March 2017), the Governing Body of the International Labour Office decided that a Global Dialogue Forum on decent work in the management of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) would be held in Geneva. During its 334th Session (October– November 2018), it decided that the date of the meeting would be 9–11 April 2019 and that all interested governments should be invited. Eight Employer and eight Worker participants would be appointed on the basis of nominations made by their respective groups in the Governing Body, and selected intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations would be invited as observers.

The purpose of the Global Dialogue Forum is to discuss current and emerging issues and opportunities related to the promotion of decent work in the management of e-waste, with the aim of adopting points of consensus, including recommendations for future action by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and its Members. Taking place in the centennial year of the ILO, the Forum is also an opportunity to discuss more broadly the future of work in the circular economy.

Read the report (Link).

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).

A New Circular Vision for Electronics - Time for a Global Reboot

By staff - Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and E-waste Coalition, January 2019

The global consumption of smart phones and other electronic devices is increasing, and bringing benefits to many people in areas as wide- ranging as health, education, finance and commerce. But there is a downside: the world is now seeing a growing tsunami of e-waste.

A new report launched by the United Nations E-waste Coalition indicates that the global economy generates approximately 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year. This is a huge amount, representing the mass of all the commercial aircraft ever produced.

Unfortunately, less than 20% of this is waste formally recycled. This results in global health and environmental risks, as well as the unnecessary loss of scarce and valuable natural materials.

But businesses, policy makers, and the public can turn this global challenge around. And the rewards will be significant. Indeed, the proper management of e-waste yields not just one, but multiple gains for development.

The new report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries.

Read the report (PDF).

Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy

By Elsa Dominish, Sven Teske, and Nick Florin - Institute for Sustainable Futures, 2019

The transition to a 100% renewable energy system is urgently needed to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and increase the chance of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. Renewable energy technologies are now the most cost competitive technologies for new installations – and recent investment in new renewable energy infrastructure globally has been double that of new energy investment in fossil fuels and nuclear.

Renewable energy technologies, electric vehicles and battery storage require high volumes of environmentally sensitive materials. The supply chains for these materials and technologies need to be appropriately managed, to avoid creating new adverse social and environmental impacts along the supply chain.

This report presents the findings of an assessment of the projected mineral demand for fourteen metals used in renewable energy and storage technologies, the potential to reduce demand through efficiency and recycling, and the associated supply risks and impacts. Solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power have been chosen for this assessment because these two technologies make up the majority of new global renewable electricity installations. Batteries have been assessed because of their importance for use in electric vehicles (EVs) and energy storage systems.

This research aims to identify the main ‘hotspots’ or areas of concern in the supply chain, including technologies, metals and locations, where opportunities to reduce demand and influence responsible sourcing initiatives will be most needed.

Read the report (PDF).

Metals in the Circular Economy

By Davide Patteri and Frédéric Simon - Euractiv, November 2018

Vanadium, borate, bismuth, gallium – they may sound like planets from a science fiction movie, but in fact they are some of the most critical elements of the European Union’s economy.They are all on the European Commission’s ‘critical raw materials list’.

The 27 materials on the list are considered both very important to the EU economy and of worrying scarcity. They therefore benefit from specific measures to guarantee their sourcing and encourage their reuse.

These metals are essential components in the manufacturing of smart phones, electric car batteries and other green technologies. In this special report, EURACTIV looks at how the EU’s circular economy strategy can help secure Europe’s supply of critical raw materials in a sustainable way.

Read the report (PDF).

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