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January 26, 2022
Environmental Justice

Lithium, cobalt, nickel and electric cars: the hidden impacts of the ecological transition and solutions to change direction

Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

"The salt desert is dying and this affects all of humanity, but humans don't understand this. They only see energy. The countries that buy lithium should understand that if there is no more water in the desert, we will die. There is more than energy here, we are fighting for our lives". Sonya Ramos, a Chilean activist and indigenous leader of the Salar people, has not minced her words. She is the protagonist of a 350-kilometres march across the desert to the city of Antofagasta to urge the authorities not to further expand lithium extraction. Her interview with the Guardian, which also filmed a video about it, was also relayed by the website Internazionale and warns the whole of humanity.

Lithium, in fact, is an essential element for batteries in laptops, mobile phones, plasma screens and hybrid and electric cars. In the last ten years alone, as demand for these products has increased, demand for lithium has risen by 8% and it is estimated that it could grow tenfold by 2030. The increase in demand is leading multinational companies to push governments and local authorities to expand the extraction of this material.

At present, almost all the lithium needed to satisfy the European battery market is imported from abroad. Given its geographical distribution, Europe's main problem is supply. According to the latest data from the US Geological Survey, the world's lithium reserves amount to 21 million tonnes, and are concentrated in a handful of countries in the form of salt solutions and minerals. Australia, China and the so-called "Lithium Triangle", an area between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia that holds more than half of the world's reserves.

The boom in this technology has turned the Atacama salt desert belt in northern Chile into one of the most exploited mining areas, destroying the fragile desert ecosystem. Lithium, in fact, is obtained through a process of water evaporation, which is very scarce in the Salar de Atacama, a saline lake responsible for 40% of the world's lithium production. Here, extraction activities have consumed 65% of the water present, exacerbating the water crisis that Chile is already facing. In addition, contamination by toxic substances used in mining has contributed to further depletion and pollution of groundwater.

While the transition away from fossil fuels can no longer be postponed, the impacts of extracting the minerals needed for the so-called 'green transition' - lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese - risk creating enormous environmental and social damage. "The unprecedented increase in demand for these and other raw materials poses serious human rights and environmental risks and raises the question of how sustainable and equitable a transition based on the mass deployment of electric vehicles really is", says the report published in December 2020, entitled "The Battery Paradox", produced by the independent research centre on the multinational SOMO.

The transport sector alone will account for around a quarter of global CO2 emissions in 2019, with over 70% coming from road transport. Clearly, these emissions need to be curbed if the goals of the Paris climate agreement are to be met. But phasing out fossil fuel cars in favour of electric vehicles may come at an unacceptably high social and environmental cost.

Electric vehicles are often presented as the ultimate solution for reducing emissions. After all, they run on batteries instead of oil, eliminating the CO2 exhaust emissions of traditional engines. This is why governments around the world are adopting policies to phase out petrol and diesel cars and stimulate a massive uptake of electric vehicles. This has already led to a worldwide boom in the production and sales of electric cars, which will only accelerate in the coming years.

Staying stuck with diesel and petrol vehicles or increasing the production of electric vehicles, however, is not the solution. As the report's authors suggest, it is necessary to consider the impacts throughout the supply chain. And that means building a supply chain based on environmental and social justice, reducing demand for minerals and energy through ride-sharing, car-sharing and public transport policies and strategies.

We also need to invest in material efficiency: using less, designing batteries that can be disassembled and recycled.

In conclusion, we need to consume less energy, recycle more, reduce the number of cars on the road and, above all, change the approach of an economy based on maximising profits and excessive consumption. It is time to build another economy that protects local communities, future generations and the environment.

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