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Tuesday, 9 March 2021

EVs are awesome, but their lithium batteries have an environmental footprint

Electric vehicles are vital to cut emissions — but they, too, come at an environmental cost: The race to find the world’s lithium deposits — an important component of rechargeable batteries for electric cars — is heating up, as European and US policymakers place greater emphasis on reducing carbon emissions and introduce incentives to transition to electric vehicles. But the production of this so-called “white oil” is not without an environmental impact, the Guardian’s Oliver Balch shows in this podcast (listen, runtime: 32:06).

Desertifying the Atacama: In Chile, where lithium is found in brine, companies pump saltwater from beneath the earth’s surface and leave it to evaporate in the desert sun. An area in the country’s northern Atacama Desert known as the “lithium triangle” is thought by some to house half of the world’s reserves, and is being targeted by companies for large-scale mining. Locals and environmentalists are concerned that the process will end up contaminating fresh groundwater reserves that lie above the brine deposits, accelerating the region’s desertification and eradicating flora and fauna.

Over in Europe, the concerns are different. In Portugal, which is positioning itself as the continent’s lithium hub, the mineral is found in rock and clay deposits and must be mined from the hillsides. This has been met with backlash from local communities who aren’t eager to see their countryside cratered.

Industry insiders argue the price is worth it if it means cutting carbon emissions: In an investor presentation (pdf) Savannah Resources, a company preparing to open a mine in Portugal, says that its initial 11-year operations will prevent a 100 mn tonnes of CO2 from being emitted, thanks to the batteries produced from its lithium. It’s a “no-brainer” if its mines help reduce transport emissions and thus reduce the threat of climate change, the company’s CEO said.

Could lithium recycling provide a solution? Analysts forecast that the global lithium recycling industry will grow c. 12x to more than USD 18 bn by 2030. Although the mineral’s volatile nature makes access tricky, a number of companies are racing to develop technologies to make it easier.

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