The threat of climate change has led many corporations and countries to look to more sustainable sources of energy. As countries try to transition to cleaner and more sustainable technologies, the need for lithium has soared exponentially. Lithium, which has been labelled ‘white gold’ and ‘the new oil’, is used for rechargeable batteries in many gadgets including phones, laptops and electric cars.
Over 70% of the world’s lithium is found within Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. These countries have subsequently been labelled the ‘Lithium Triangle’, benefitting from the numerous socio-economic advantages of lithium mining whilst supporting the global energy transition. However, environmental and social ramifications plague lithium mining in South America, raising the question as to whether the practice will benefit the global environmental and economic situation or if it will instead inflict environmental and societal harm.
In 2019, three scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for “the development of lithium-ion batteries”. These lithium batteries have become an intrinsic part of life, providing the world with portable, fossil-fuel free electricity. Indeed, before the creation of lithium batteries, most batteries could not be recharged – when they ran out, they were sent to landfill sites. Thus, the ability of lithium batteries to be recharged results in less landfill.
One specific use of lithium batteries is in electric cars, where they reduce the consumption of greenhouse gases; cars no longer have to run on oil and petrol, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint. This has led many governments to include them in their energy plans. For example, Biden has outlined his plan to decrease America’s carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, viewing electric cars as an efficient way to do this. America has invested in building and installing 500,000 electric charging points in communities and along highways. China has also tried to incorporate electric cars into its plans to help the environment, aiming for 40% of cars in the country to be electric by 2030. The lightweight, rechargeable, and powerful nature of lithium batteries has reduced landfill and carbon footprint from petrol and oil, rendering (the advent of) lithium batteries to be of great renown.
Whilst – seemingly – the world benefits from a new and sustainable source of energy, the economies of the Lithium Triangle also benefit. Vast amounts of lithium are being extracted, as the material is essential to the transition to clean energy. This benefits the countries in the Lithium Triangle with jobs, foreign investment, and economic gain. In 2020, 350,000 tonnes of lithium were used, but it is estimated this figure could be six times higher (over 2,000,000) by 2030 as countries try to meet their infrastructure goals. This means that the Lithium Triangle countries are benefitting from increased international investment as mining corporations invest heavily in them. Currently, lithium costs $72,000 per tonne, up from the $6,000 per tonne as in 2019.
In 2021, Chile exported over $1 billion worth of Lithium, with Bolivia gaining $11 million and Argentina $206 million in the same year, highlighting the economic importance of the mineral (in these countries). Lithium mining has led to increased investment from transnational corporations, more employment for local people, and an important source of income for the countries. It is for this reason that lithium has been labelled ‘the new oil’ and that the Lithium Triangle countries are expected to benefit from their extensive natural reserves of the mineral in question. The environmental and socio-economic benefits of lithium mining in these countries makes one wonder why this topic has been the subject of such extensive debate. This questioned can be better answered once the process is looked at more closely.
Beneath the surface of the environmental and economic benefits, lithium mining in South America brings a hoard of environmental and societal consequences. Perhaps the most problematic is that of the huge amount of water that lithium mining requires. To produce one tonne of lithium, 500,000 gallons of water are needed. Not only does this impact the surrounding ecosystem, but also local farmers who grow crops to rear animals. The removal of brine from deep in the ground also lowers the water table, meaning supplies of drinking water, and water for irrigation, are threatened. For example, lithium mining consumes 65% of Chile’s Salar de Atacama regional water.
Moreover, the chemicals that are used in the extraction of lithium are also highly toxic, and they can pollute local rivers. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, lithium mining has contaminated streams, affecting drinking water and harming plants that are irrigated from these streams. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining corporations and local communities, the latter of whom argue that lithium mining is leaving the landscape scarred by vast piles of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water. What is more, the extracted lithium is then transported by heavy goods vehicles, causing air contamination.
Furthermore, lithium mining also threatens wildlife, which is especially dangerous in areas with threatened or rare species such as Darwin’s foxes in Chile and the Patagonian Mara in Argentina. This simply goes to show that, whilst creating reusable batteries, lithium mining is often at the expense of the areas that produce the material. This contributes to water depletion, loss of biodiversity, and air pollution – problems of which the status quo, in these countries, is already in critical condition. Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile observes that lithium mining “is not only invasive, but also scars the landscape, destroys the water table, and pollutes the earth and local wells,”, adding that lithium mining “isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”
Lithium mining needs a major reform if it is to be universally beneficial as a practice. The wealthy corporations which invest in lithium mining must adhere to principles of transparency and cooperation with locals if they are to achieve this goal. In some areas, measures are already being taken to work towards this aim, as in Chile, where the Atacama Council has set up monitoring stations on its salt flat in order to track changing water levels. Additionally, a Canadian corporation recently presented a nanotechnology solution which can extract lithium directly before pumping the residual water back underground. Nevertheless, further developments have to be made to ensure that lithium mining does not endanger the people and environments of the Lithium Triangle.
Despite the existing problems, many remain adamant that the mineral which lies 10 metres below the salt flats in the Lithium Triangle will be central to the global relinquishing of fossil fuels. Simon Reeve observed that “we don’t have a choice” – that lithium, notwithstanding its environmental repercussions, is necessary to move away from fossil fuels which are far more detrimental to the environment. Nevertheless, if lithium is to be at the forefront of sustainable energy, major reforms are needed. Until viable alternative means are proposed and actioned, lithium mining will continue to occur in the same way.