February 5, 2023

The lithium paradox

The lithium paradox

By Marco Tedesco
|January 18, 2023

Lithium mining in France

Extraction of lithium – an essential element for clean energy transport – can have negative effects on the environment. Picture: TomTooM03

The race toward net emissions depends heavily on lithium — to power electric cars, wind and solar energy storage.

This element of the periodic table is one of the main heroes of the economic and infrastructure transformation that we are experiencing today. Our dependence on lithium is reminiscent of the oil and coal that transformed our society in the past. However, at the time, the long-term effects of burning fossil fuels were unknown, whereas today, we know the very negative aspects of lithium mining on the environment.

With this knowledge should come responsibility – towards the environment and future generations. We must not fall into the very traps we are trying to free ourselves from.

Along with lithium’s powerful “healing” and “mitigating” properties of climate change impacts, potential “side effects” need to be considered and communicated in a transparent manner. These Side effects include: Using large amounts of water and its related pollution. potential increase in carbon dioxide emissions; producing large amounts of mineral waste; increased respiratory problems; Changing the hydrological cycle

Obviously, the economic interests at stake are enormous. Australia, Chile and China produce 90% From the World’s Lithium The global lithium market is fast approaching $8 billion.

Thus, a contradiction can arise between the “clean” revolution and the “dirty” lithium mines: it is true that the electrification of cars and other aspects of our society benefits the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. However, after considering the emission cost associated with lithium mining, the transition may not be as efficient as we think, especially when miners are not using clean energy.

Take electric cars, for example. To give you an idea of ​​the effect, the production of a battery weighs 1100 pounds More than 70% more carbon dioxide According to research by automotive consulting firm Beryls Strategy Advisors, compared to the production of a typical car in Germany.

In addition, lithium extraction requires a lot of water. To extract one ton of lithium, approx 500,000 liters of waterand can lead to tank poisoning and related health problems.

So what to do? For starters, we need to invest in alternative solutions for lithium batteries. At the same time, recycling and extending the life of these batteries reduces the need to extract large amounts of precious materials. This effort should be accompanied by setting up lithium mining operations with strict environmental laws and regulations and investing in advanced mining methods capable of extracting lithium from seawater.

Refining and reducing the impact of lithium mining is essential in order to call the steps we take towards a new world “progress”. Otherwise, we’re just going in circles.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at the Columbia School of Climate Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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