The Paradox of Lithium
The race toward net-zero emissions depends heavily on lithium — to power electric vehicles, to store wind and solar energy.
This element of the periodic table is considered one of the foremost protagonists of the economic and infrastructural transformation that we’re experiencing today. Our dependence on lithium recalls that of oil and coal that transformed our society prior to now. On the time, nevertheless, the long-term effects of burning fossil fuels were unknown, whereas today, we all know of the highly negative facets of lithium extraction on the environment.
With this information should come responsibility — towards the environment and future generations. We must not fall into the identical traps from which we try to free ourselves.
Along with the powerful “curative” and “palliative” qualities of lithium on the results of climate change, it’s vital to contemplate the potential “unwanted side effects” and communicate them in transparent manner. These unwanted side effects include: use of enormous quantities of water and related pollution; potential increase in carbon dioxide emissions; production of enormous quantities of mineral waste; increased respiratory problems; alteration of the hydrological cycle.
Obviously the economic interests at stake are enormous. Australia, Chile and China produce 90% of the world’s lithium. The worldwide lithium market rapidly approaching $8 billion.
A paradox, due to this fact, can arise between “clean” revolution and “dirty” lithium mines: it’s true that electrifying cars and other facets of our society favors the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Nonetheless, after we consider the fee of emissions related to extracting lithium, the transition is probably not as efficient as we imagine, especially when miners usually are not using clean energy.
Allow us to consider, for instance, electric cars. To provide an idea of this effect, producing a battery weighing 1,100 kilos emits over 70% more carbon dioxide than producing a standard automobile in Germany, in line with research by the automotive consultancy Berylls Strategy Advisors.
Moreover, lithium mining requires a whole lot of water. To extract one ton of lithium requires about 500,000 liters of water, and may end up in the poisoning of reservoirs and related health problems.
What to do, then? To start with, we must always spend money on alternative solutions to lithium batteries. At the identical time, recycling and increasing the lifetime of those batteries would cut back the necessity to mine huge quantities of the valuable material. This effort ought to be accompanied by launching lithium mining operations with strict environmental laws and regulations, and investing in advanced mining methods able to extracting lithium from seawater.
Remediating and reducing the impact of lithium mining is important to have the opportunity to call the steps we’re taking towards a recent world “progress.” Otherwise, we are only entering into circles.
Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.