The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction.
Jonathan Neale’s new book, Fight the Fire, is published by The Ecologist magazine, Resistance Books, the Alternative Information and Development Centre, and the International Institute for Research and Education. For a free copy, click the cover image.
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.
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.
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.
Rare Earth Metals
Similar arguments apply to rare earth metals. There are several different kinds of rare earth metals, each with different properties. They are widely used, in small amounts, in wind turbines, car batteries and much other technology necessary for climate change. It is often said that this rarity is an obstacle to decarbonizing the world.
This is not quite right. First, rare earth metals are not rare because they are found in only a few places in the world. They are found in many places, all over the world. The word rare in this context means that they are found in very, very small concentrations in the ore where they are mined. This makes them expensive. It also requires mining a vast amount of ore and then processing it with acids. If unregulated, the pollution is intense. In other words, this is more extractavism.
Right now most rare earth metals are mined in China. There is nothing special about the geology of China. Most of them could be mined in the United States, or a range of other countries. Coltan is a good example. It is used in small, hand-held electronic devices. At one point in the civil war in the Congo, the coltan mines were cut off by fighting and for a few weeks there was a global shortage of smart phones, and a delay in the supply of play station. By 2009, many sources were repeating that 80% of coltan reserves were in Africa. Reserves are hard to estimate, but in 2009 about 30% of coltan was being mined in Congo DR. That was because the largest coltan mine in the world, Wodginga in Australia, had closed at the end of 2008. At that point Wodginga had been supplying 30% of the global markets for coltan, but found production uneconomic. Wodginga opened again in 2011, closed in 2017, and is now a lithium mine. There is almost always an alternative place to mine.
China has two “advantages.” One is that the government can deal brutally with local protestors against pollution. The other advantage is that the Chinese government decided that they would move their economy towards high-tech, high-value industry, and that to do this they need a reliable supply of rare earth metals.
The Chinese government has also made a decision to open mines for a wide range of rare earth metals. This makes China dominant in the market, because it is not possible now to tell what metals will be needed for which industries in ten years’ time. What China can do, and the United States or Australia so far cannot, is decide on public investment in advance of knowing exactly what will be needed.
But as with lithium, there are always alternatives. The main use of rare earth metals now is for screens, smart phones, games consoles, electronics and laptop computers. You can have a phone, a computer or a screen without rare earth metals. But a pinch of the metal gives the screen better resolution, and it allows the device to be made much smaller. Steve Jobs knew what he wanted to do with phones long before he made the I-phone. But Jobs had to wait for the necessary rare metals to come onstream.
All this means that when climate jobs programs need rare earth metals, they can always go back to an older technology. A shortage of rare metals does not mean renewable energy won’t work.
We have established that batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Other materials are available. We have established that shortages of lithium do not mean we have to give up on the prospect of all vehicles being electric. Other kinds of batteries can be used. Lithium can be mined from other parts of the world.
In another chapter in my book, I explain why hydrogen from electrolysis with renewable electricity can be used instead in cars instead of batteries. There are serious technical problems, and again, it’s more expensive.
So we don’t have to use lithium in electric batteries. We need not poison the homelands of indigenous people. Moreover, much of the poisoning takes place because mining is unregulated. Regulation could solve that problem.
Which sounds all well and good. But this is to ignore the relations of power that enable destructive extraction in poor countries all over the world. Is it naïve to think we can do anything about that?
Well, as things stand it is difficult for local people, or indigenous people, to defend themselves. This is true in Papua New Guinea, but also in Argentina, China and indeed with mountain-top removal in West Virginia. In many parts of the world, international NGOs do encourage local people to campaign against pollution in the media, and to take out court cases, in countries far away. Sometimes this works, but the record is not good, and it takes years. Moreover, local people lose control of their campaign, which means the foreign NGO and lawyers can settle whenever they decide to, on whatever terms they accept. 
Agitation and organization inside the country can have a larger effect. In 2020, a court ruling in Chile in support of the indigenous communities brought lithium mining there to a halt, and may stop it altogether.
All this is worth fighting for. But most of my book is about how we can fight for and establish a public sector climate jobs service in each country. And if we win that – a big if – the problem is simpler. Then it would become possible to challenge the destructive power of extractive industries. The people whose lives and lands are polluted or drowned, in Bolivia for instance, could appeal for solidarity from the people who work in the new climate service, in France for example.
The balance of forces would be quite different from the way it is now when NGOs attempt to lobby and shame great corporations. The workers in the climate service in France would be unionized.
Union organization is never automatic. But if people cannot organize a union in a public sector service of a million people, and moreover a service that has been won in the teeth of established power by a mass movement of millions, a mass movement in which the unions have been central, a mass movement where everyone knows they are part of a global movement to save the Earth – then, frankly, you cannot organize a union anywhere. Moreover, if we succeed in climate jobs, we will have workforces with a deep pride in their mission to save the Earth.
All of this presumes that the workers in the climate service have job security, and government jobs. As we have seen, there are many other reasons why we need those protections anyway. But in that situation, with those feelings and forces in play, an appeal for solidarity from indigenous people in a river valley somewhere could easily lead workers 8,000 miles away to tell their management: “We will use lithium from somewhere else. Or another material. Or hydrogen fuel cells. We are not working with lithium that has blood on it.”
Similar arguments apply to almost all other cases of extractive industry. Workers who offer each other solidarity can turn a race to the bottom into a race to the top. And if that feels unlikely to you, it is because you live now, here, on this Earth. If we can do it, the process of saving that Earth will change what people can do and imagine.
In sum, the energy transition right now is powered, in many places, by appalling destruction and poisoning in the extraction of raw materials. It does not have to be that way.
 Jeffrey Webber, 2017, The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left, London: Pluto; and Mike Gonzalez, 2019, The Ebb of the Pink Tide: The Decline of the Left in Latin America, both provide good guides to the complexity and contradictions of the Morales’ government, which was the product of a great mass movement and deeply constrained by neoliberalism. But politics is changing again in Latin America, and good up to the minute analysis is Pablo Solon, 2020, “Why Lucho and David won the Bolivian elections,” Systematical Alternatives, Oct. 19.  “Lithium,” US Geological Service, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January, 2020.  David Abraham, 2015, The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, New Haven: Yale University Press, is brilliant.  Michael Nest, 2011, Coltan, Cambridge: Polity, 16.  Stuart Kirsch, Mining Capitalism, Berkeley: University of California Press, chapter 2 is very good on this.
Teaser photo credit: By Dnn87 – Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3215855