You are here

renewable energy

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.

Just Transition for Pennsylvania estimated to cost $115,000 per worker in latest report from PERI

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 8, 2021

In the latest of a series of reports titled Green Growth Programs for U.S. States, researchers provide analysis and proposals for economic recovery for Pennsylvania, considering both the impacts of Covid-19 and a necessary transition to a cleaner economy. In Impacts of the Reimagine Appalachia & Clean Energy Transition Programs for Pennsylvania: Job Creation, Economic Recovery, and Long-Term Sustainability, Robert Pollin and co-authors estimate that clean energy investments scaled at about $23 billion per year from 2021 to 2030 will generate roughly 162,000 jobs per year in Pennsylvania. They detail those investment programs for sectors including public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration and agriculture, and including plugging orphaned oil and gas wells.

The report estimates that 64,000 people are currently employed in Pennsylvania in fossil fuel-based industries – including in fracking for natural gas from the Marcellus Shale regions, as well as other oil and gas projects, coal mining, and fossil fuel-based power generation. As the state transitions away from fossil-fuel industries, the authors estimate that about 1,800 workers will be displaced each year between 2021 – 2030, and another 1,000 will voluntarily retire each year. The authors estimate that the average costs of supporting these workers will amount to about $115,000 per worker, with an overall cost of about $210 million per year over the duration of the just transition program. The report emphasizes: “It is critical that all of these workers receive pension guarantees, health care coverage, re-employment guarantees, wage insurance, and retraining support, as needed”.

The full series of reports, Green Growth Programs for U.S. States, includes similar analysis and proposals for Ohio, Maine, Colorado, New York, and the state of Washington. They are co-written by experts including Robert Pollin, Shouvik Chakraborty, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, Tyler Hansen, Gregor Semieniuk, and Jeannette Wicks-Lim. The series is published by the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Australian unions advocating for Just Transition, economic recovery, and decent jobs in renewables

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 8, 2021

As Australia endures more record-breaking heat in its current summer season, the Climate Council released a report in January: Hitting Home: the Compounding Costs of Climate Inaction, which catalogues the natural disasters and their toll on the country. New Climate Change legislation was introduced in November 2020 which would legislate a net zero emissions target by 2050 and establish a system of emissions budgeting. A Parliamentary House committee has just concluded public hearings on the legislation, to which the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) submitted a brief: No-one left behind: Australia’s transition to zero emissions . The ACTU chiefly calls for improved supports for workers in an energy transition, and the establishment of a national Just Transition or Energy Transition Authority . (The ACTU passed a more detailed climate and energy transition policy statement in 2018 )

In November 2020, the ACTU also published Sharing the benefits with workers: A decent jobs agenda for the renewable energy industry, which provides an overview of the renewable energy sector in Australia, and features both best and worst workplace practices. The report proposes an agenda to improve the quality of jobs, with special attention to the small-scale solar industry. “Particular attention is paid to the current practice of outsourcing construction of renewable energy projects to labour hire contractors, which is where many of the poor employment practices occur, and to ensuring project developers are maximising local job creation through procurement, hiring and local content planning.”

In August, the Victoria Trades Hall Council, released Transition from Crisis: Victoria Trades Hall Council’s Just Transition & Economic Recovery Strategy which links climate change and Covid-19 in words that could apply in any country:

“….The scale of the fiscal response to COVID-19 shows that, when a government takes a problem seriously and commits to dealing with it, the finances to get the problem fixed can be found and the spending is supported by the general population. The implications for action on climate change are obvious. …..The trauma, disruption and dislocation caused by COVID-19 are unprecedented outside of war time. The response, with its restrictions of civil liberties and suppression of economic activity, has been necessary, proportionate to the threat, and largely accepted by the population. The deep irony is that acting proportionately to deal with climate change would require none of those infringements of liberties and would produce an economic transformation that would leave Victorians better off. Hence this strategy is not simply for a just transition but for an economic recovery and the reconstruction of Victoria. In the period of recovery, after COVID-19 has been brought under control, we must learn the lessons from the virus response, continue to mobilise the resources we need, build on the incredible growth in community spirit and mutual aid, and get to work to deal with climate change with a determination that is based on hope and necessary action for a better world. “

The Transition from Crisis report has many purposes, but ultimately it is a comprehensive discussion of policy ideas to help the transition to a socially just and sustainable society, with workers at the centre. The strategy is built on eleven principles, which include inclusion of First Nations, gender equality, social equity, and new energy ownership models, among others. The report discusses the many ways in which unions can advocate for climate change action and protect their members: through participation in tri-partite industrial planning, training and retraining, occupational health and safety protection, collective bargaining, and union networking and cooperation. Regarding union cooperation for example, the VTHC pledges “to participate in, or establish if needed, national and state level just transitions committees to formulate policies around just transition, provide support to individual unions, engage with state climate and environment organisations, and provide a conduit into national-level decision making.”

Response to Greg Butler's critique of the Green New Deal and the Rank-and-File Strategy

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, February 7, 2021

As stated in our standard disclaimer (at the end of this editorial), the opinions expressed in this text are those of the author alone and do not represent the official position of the IWW or the IWW Environmental Union Caucus. This piece includes very strongly worded opinions, therefore the author deemed it best to emphasize that point.

There are certainly plenty of constructive, comradely criticisms of the Green New Deal, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Kim Moody's "Rank-and-File Strategy", The North American Building Trades Unions, and Jacobin (none of which are either mutually inclusive nor mutually exclusive). Unfortunately, Greg Butler's The Green New Deal and the "Rank-and-File Strategy", published on December 17, 2020, by Organizing Work, is not a good example. In fact, Butler's piece is little more than a sectarian swipe at a number of targets which are only indirectly related to each other, and worse still, it's full of inaccuracies and unfounded claims that have no evidence to support them.

Over 400,000 Clean Energy jobs lost in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 18, 2021

U.S. government employment figures for December 2020 show that the U.S. clean energy sector added 16,900 jobs in December. However, analysis released on January 13 reveals that the recovery is slow, and the industry now has its lowest number of workers since 2015, having suffered a loss of over 400,000 jobs (12%) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clean Energy Employment Initial Impacts from the COVID-19 Economic Crisis, December 2020 was prepared by BW Research Partnership, commissioned by industry groups E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), E4TheFuture, and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) . The 17-page report provides data by state and by technology, with energy efficiency leading the losses with 302,164 total jobs lost nationally between February and December 2020. California was the hardest hit state. 

This is the latest in a monthly series of reports tracking the impact of Covid-19 on clean energy jobs – the series is available at the E2 website here. These reports document the dramatic shift in clean energy employment in the U.S; the E2 Clean Jobs America 2020 annual report outlines the industry’s policy recommendations for recovery as of April 2020.

A Just and fair transition from fossil fuels in Australia

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 13, 2021

In a new report published in December by the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, author Jim Stanford argues that Australia’s labour market could transition away from fossil fuel jobs without involuntary layoffs or severe disruption to communities—if governments plan a fair transition which includes: a clear, long-term timeline, measures to facilitate inter-industry mobility and voluntary severance as fossil fuels are phased-out, and generous retraining and diversification policies. Fossil fuel jobs, though only 1% of jobs in Australia, have higher than average compensation, so in order to be attractive, alternative jobs must have decent compensation, stable hours and tenure, and collective representation.  Employment aspects of the transition from fossil fuels in Australia echoes a recent New York Times article about the career disappointment of young oil and gas workers, with this: 

“Far from being ‘supportive’ of fossil fuel workers by attempting to disrupt and delay appropriate climate transitions, in fact is does them a great disservice to pretend that these industries have a long-term viable future. It seems a cruel hoax to encourage young workers to begin their careers in industries with an inevitably short time horizon. It would be more compassionate and honest to give fossil fuel workers (both current and prospective) fair notice of the changes coming, and support them in building careers in occupations and industries that are ultimately more promising.”

 Author Jim Stanford, formerly with Canada’s Unifor union, now splits his time between Canada and Sydney, where he is director of the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work. He and the Centre are profiled in “The People’s Economist” in the Australian magazine In the Black. This research was commissioned by Australian health care industry super fund HESTA.

Impacts of the Reimagine Appalachia and Clean Energy Transition Programs for Pennsylvania: Job Creation, Economic Recovery, and Long-Term Sustainability

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty, and Gregor Semieniuk - Political Economy Research Institute, January 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated severe public health and economic impacts in Pennsylvania, as with most everywhere else in the United States. The pandemic is likely moving into its latter phases, due to the development of multiple vaccines that have demon-strated their effectiveness. Nevertheless, as of this writing in mid-January 2021, infections and deaths from COVID are escalating, both within Pennsylvania and throughout the U.S. Correspondingly, the economic slump resulting from the pandemic continues.

This study proposes a recovery program for Pennsylvania that is capable of exerting an effective counterforce against the state’s ongoing recession in the short run while also build-ing a durable foundation for an economically viable and ecologically sustainable longer-term recovery. Even under current pandemic conditions, we cannot forget that we have truly limited time to take decisive action around climate change. As we show, a robust climate stabilization project for Pennsylvania will also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding opportunities throughout the state.

Read the text (PDF).

Steady Path: How a Transition to a Fossil-Free Canada is in Reach for Workers and Their Communities

By staff - Environmental Defense, January 2021

This brief investigates the actual state of employment in Canada’s fossil fuel industry. It explains why the clean economy transition is manageable for workers in fossil fuel industries and should start now. And it provides ten principles that we should be following to make this transition fair and effective.

This brief summarizes the findings of Employment Transitions and the Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels, a report authored by economist Jim Stanford at the Centre for Future Work.

Read the text (PDF).

The Biden Climate Plan: Part 2: An Arena of Struggle

By Jeremey Brecher - Labor Network for Sustinability, December 8, 2020

The climate plan released by Joe Biden in August presents a wide-ranging program for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The previous commentary, “The Biden Climate Plan: What it Proposes–Part 1” summarizes that plan. This commentary identifies the points of conflict on climate policy and related social policies that are likely to emerge within a Biden administration. It concludes by assessing how advocates of a Green New Deal can take advantage of the Biden program to fight for a climate-safe, worker-friendly, socially-just outcome. To read this commentary, please visit: this page.

The Biden Climate Plan: Part 1: What It Proposes

By Jeremey Brecher - Labor Network for Sustinability, December 1, 2020

This commentary by Jeremy Brecher analyzes Joe Biden’s “Plan for Climate Change and Environmental Justice” released in August. The following commentary, “The Biden Climate Plan: Part 2: An Arena of Struggle,” will consider the struggles that are likely to emerge over what parts of the plan can and should be implemented. To read this commentary, please visit: this page.

Pages

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.