The rush to ‘switch to electricity’ has a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining | Thea Riofrancos
The Atacama Salar is a majestic expanse of high altitude in shades of white and gray, dotted with red lagoons and surrounded by imposing volcanoes. It took me a moment to find my bearings on my first visit, standing on this 3,000 km² (1,200 square mile) windswept plateau. A vertiginous run had taken me, along with two other researchers, through a sandstorm, a rainstorm and the peaks and valleys of this mountainous region of northern Chile. The sun has been rolling down on us intensely – the Atacama Desert has the highest levels of solar radiation on Earth, and only parts of Antarctica are drier.
I had come to the salar to research an emerging environmental dilemma. In order to avoid the worst of the accelerating climate crisis, we must quickly reduce carbon emissions. To do this, energy systems around the world must shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Lithium batteries play a key role in this transition: they power electric vehicles and store energy on renewable grids, thus helping to reduce emissions from the transport and energy sectors. Under the Atacama Salar are most of the lithium reserves; Chile now Provisions almost a quarter of the world market. But extracting lithium from this unique landscape has serious environmental and social costs.
In mining installations, which occupy more than 78 km² (30 square miles) and are operated by multinationals SQM and Albemarle, the brine is pumped to the surface and disposed in evaporation ponds resulting in a lithium-rich concentrate; viewed from above, the pools are chartreuse tones. The whole process uses huge amounts of water in an already parched environment. As a result, fresh water is less accessible to the 18 indigenous communities of Atacameño that live on the perimeter of the apartment, and the habitats of species such as Andean flamingos have been disturbed. This situation is exacerbated by the drought induced by climate degradation and the effects of copper mining and processing, of which Chile is the world’s largest producer. In addition to this environmental damage, the Chilean state has not always applied the rights of indigenous peoples right to prior consent.
These facts raise an uncomfortable question that resonates around the world: Does tackling the climate crisis mean sacrificing communities and ecosystems? Supply chains that produce green technologies start in extractive borders like the Atacama Desert. And we are on the eve of a global mining boom linked to the energy transition. A recent report published by the International Energy Agency indicates that meeting the climate goals of the Paris Agreement would skyrocket demand for “critical minerals” used to produce clean energy technologies. The numbers are particularly dramatic for the raw materials used to make electric vehicles: By 2040, the IEA predicts that demand for lithium will have grown 42 times from 2020 levels.
These resources have become a new hotbed of geopolitical tensions. In the United States and in Europe, decision-makers are increasingly talking about a “race” to secure minerals linked to the energy transition and the strengthening of domestic supplies; the idea of a “new cold war” with China is frequently invoked. As a result, northern Portugal and Nevada are slated for new lithium projects. Across the global lithium frontier, Chile at western United States and Portugal, environmental activists, indigenous communities and residents concerned about threats to agricultural livelihoods are protesting what they see as the greenwashing of destructive mining.
Indeed, the extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals are responsible for 90% loss of biodiversity and 26% of global carbon emissions. A report estimates that the mining sector produces 100 billion tonnes of waste every year. Extraction and processing are generally water and energy intensive and contaminate waterways and soil. Along with these dramatic changes in the natural environment, mining is linked to human rights violations, respiratory ailments, dispossession of indigenous territory and labor exploitation. Once minerals are uprooted from the ground, mining companies tend to rack up profits and leave behind poverty and contamination. These profits are only multiplying along the vast supply chains that produce electric vehicles and solar panels. Access to these technologies is very uneven and communities that suffer the harms of extraction are often denied its benefits.
The transition to a new energy system is often understood as a conflict between incumbent fossil fuel companies and climate action advocates. Existential as this conflict is, the battles between competing visions of a low-carbon world are intensifying – and they will become increasingly central in politics across the world. These competing visions reflect the reality that there are multiple paths to rapid decarbonization. The question is not whether to decarbonize, but how.
A transport system based on individual electric vehicles, for example, with landscapes dominated by highways and suburban sprawl, is much more more resource and energy intensive than the one who favors public transport and alternatives such as walking and cycling. Likewise, declining aggregate energy demand would reduce the material footprint of the technologies and infrastructure that connect homes and workplaces to the power grid. And all the demand for battery minerals need not be met by new mining: metal recycling and recovery used batteries is a promising replacement, especially if governments invest in recycling infrastructure and force manufacturers to use recycled content.
Additionally, mining operations should be required to respect international laws protecting indigenous rights to consent, and governments should consider outright moratoria on mines in sensitive ecosystems and watersheds. The movements on the ground in Chile articulate this vision. the Plurinational Andean Saltworks Observatory (Opsal, of which I am a member) connects environmental and indigenous activists across the so-called “lithium triangle” of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and has advocated for holistic regulation of this vulnerable desert wetland, by giving priority to its ecological, scientific and cultural aspects and respect for the right of communities to participate in its governance.
This alternative vision now has a chance to become a reality. In May, progressives swept elections for an assembly tasked with rewriting Chile’s dictatorship-era constitution and for local and regional offices. Many delegates to the constitutional convention are linked to student, feminist, environmental and indigenous movements; one of them is Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist and a strong advocate for the protection of saline from galloping extraction. Meanwhile, Opsal is working with members of Congress to draft a law that would preserve the salt flats and wetlands currently threatened by lithium and copper mines and hydroelectric power plants.
Chilean activists are clear: there is no zero-sum conflict between tackling climate change and preserving local environments and livelihoods. The indigenous communities of the Atacama Desert are also at the forefront of the devastating effects of global warming. Rather than an excuse to ramp up mining, the accelerating climate crisis should be a boost to transform the predatory and environmentally harmful production and consumption patterns that caused this crisis in the first place.