Lithium is an enabler for more mining

Lithium Americas' test pit - Photo: Will Falk

Opinion

The plan to “electrify everything” that is rapidly taking over all economic and policy planning around the world means that mining for metals and minerals will increase dramatically to supply demand for technologies like EVs, energy storage, and so much more.

Lithium is just one of many minerals and metals including cobalt, copper, nickel, manganese, graphite, and more required to supply EV and energy storage batteries. The more lithium that is mined, and the more batteries that are put into the pipeline to build with that lithium, the more of these other materials will be needed. 

Take a look at the included image from the International Energy Agency (IEA) report “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions“, and you can see how the demand for various metals and minerals will skyrocket in the coming decades as we race to electrify cars and energy systems. 

Graphic: International Energy Association, licensed under CC BY-C-SA 3.0 IGO

The IEA writes in this report that “Clean energy transitions will have far-reaching consequences for metals and mining … mineral demand for use in EVs and battery storage is a major force, growing at least thirty times to 2040. Lithium sees the fastest growth, with demand growing by over 40 times in the SDS by 2040, followed by graphite, cobalt and nickel (around 20-25 times).” [SDS refers to a Sustainable Development Scenario tool the IEA uses to project demand for energy to meet the various scenarios laid out under the Paris Climate Agreement goals.]

Graphic: International Energy Association, licensed under CC BY-C-SA 3.0 IGO

In a separate report, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector“, the IEA writes: “The energy transition requires substantial quantities of critical minerals, and their supply emerges as a significant growth area. The total market size of critical minerals like copper, cobalt, manganese and various rare earth metals grows almost sevenfold between 2020 and 2030 in the net zero pathway. Revenues from those minerals are larger than revenues from coal well before 2030. This creates substantial new opportunities for mining companies.”

The IEA writes “substantial new opportunities for mining companies” as if it’s a good thing. As if all of this mining isn’t destroying life on planet Earth. According to the EPA, the metals mining industry alone causes almost 50% of all environmental pollution annually in the US (see image). This pollution is likely to increase dramatically with the prospects of the fast growing mining sector thanks to the Biden administration’s executive order to ensure domestic supplies of metals and minerals.

Graphic: International Energy Association, licensed under CC BY-C-SA 3.0 IGO

Some have said that the Thacker Pass Lithium mine is a “benign” mining project, especially in comparison to other kinds of mining, like copper mining. But as you can see from the image included from the IEA report, EVs require large amounts of copper, so more EVs and battery storage will lead to an increase in copper mining. 

Cobalt is another metal needed to supply batteries, with most cobalt (70%) currently supplied from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Due to child labor and violence in the DRC and an increase in demand for cobalt, mining companies are now looking to mine the bottom of the Pacific ocean to supply cobalt demand–and yes, that mining will be just as horrific as one might imagine in its impacts to the already beleaguered oceans. More EVs and battery storage will lead to an increase in cobalt mining. 

Every metal and mineral required for EVs and battery storage has a similar story of land, water, and air destruction, and loss of habitat and life — human and non-human — from mining pollution.

You can’t separate a supposedly “benign” lithium mine from all those other kinds of mines: they go hand-in-hand, because if you want to build EVs you need all of these materials too, not just lithium. 

More lithium enables more mining, across the board. 

Mining is the most destructive human activity on Earth. Those who promote “net zero”, “clean energy”, and “clean technology” like EVs want more of this destructive activity at a time when we know that we are in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, that habitat loss and over development are causing far more species and biodiversity loss than any other factor, and that without healthy, clean, intact ecosystems on Earth we doom ourselves along with countless other species to certain extinction.

What we need, instead, is less of everything. We need to shift to a culture that values less, rather than more. We need to end growth for its own sake, produce less, and consume less. We need to respect, value, and honor every single acre of wilderness, every ounce of clean water, and every molecule of clean air we have left. Can we, as a culture, do this? Or will we continue to strip-mine the Earth for batteries and cars?


Elisabeth Robson is an activist and author. She is campaigning with Protect Thacker Pass to stop the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine.


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