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  • Alex Andriatis

What about the Lithium?


A common challenge to calls for electrification is to point out the “hidden” negative impact, both environmental and social, associated with resources required for clean energy. “What about the lithium in electric cars? Isn’t lithium mining extractivist, damaging to both the environment and the communities from which it is obtained?” Such questions come from both detractors of the clean energy transition and from environmentalists concerned about ensuring a socially-just transformation of infrastructure. With a view to engaging with this important question, this brief guide presents some literature on the environmental and social impacts of obtaining the critical resources needed for clean energy, and compares them to the existing impacts of fossil fuels. To summarize these findings: the resources required for a sustainable infrastructure certainly have negative environmental and social impacts, but they are far less harmful than the impacts of business-as-usual fossil fuel extraction and use. While not discounting these legitimate concerns about the transition, I believe there is no evidence that favors the use of fossil fuels over renewable energy from a climate change, human health, or environmental justice perspective.

Sourcing materials for renewable energy has negative impacts: 1. The Washington Post has published detailed investigative reports on the extractivist effects of cobalt mining and lithium mining. The reports detail the exploitation of Indigenous communities that can lead to severe health impacts and death. The mining causes environmental pollution and the depletion of local resources such as fresh water. It also leads to societal harm through the vast disparity between the paltry economic benefit received by the exploited communities and the millions of dollars of profit to the corporations that benefit. The end-product manufacturers, making laptops, phones and electric vehicles, often distance themselves from these environmental and human rights issues rather than acknowledging the impacts of their industry and the culpability of the consumer in exacerbating these problems. (“The Cobalt Pipeline” and “Tossed Aside in the “White Gold” Rush” by The Washington Post.) 2. An extensive study in 2019 on minerals sourcing for renewable energy considers the projected demand for metals in a 100% renewable energy scenario. The study finds that cobalt, lithium, and rare earth metals have the highest projected demand and supply risks. These metals also have negative environmental and social impacts on the immediate Indigenous communities such as contamination of agricultural soil, water pollution, freshwater depletion, waste gas release, and the production of radioactive waste. The study explains the level of awareness and response within the mining industry to these issues and current efforts to reduce mining impacts through substitution, efficiency, and recycling. The study identifies recycling as the primary method to reduce future demand, and stresses the need for new material sourcing that promotes environmental stewardship and respects human life. (Dominish et. al, 2019. “Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy”)

But the negative impacts already caused by the fossil fuel industry are far worse: 1. A vast amount has been written about the damage caused by the fossil fuel industry to the environment, human health, and social justice. An essential primer with many references is “The Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels” by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Underground coal mining accidents continue to kill many people, including in the United States. Black lung disease has killed 10,000 former miners between 1990 and 2000. Underground mines collapse, catch fire, and leak acid and heavy metals into the soil and freshwater supply. Surface mining removes whole mountaintops and deforests millions of acres of land. Local communities are impacted by mudslides, landslides, and flashfloods, as well as water pollution. Oil and methane extraction bring up large volumes of contaminated water. Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking”, for methane gas consumes millions of gallons of fresh water per well, along with large quantities of chemicals, around 25% of which are carcinogenic, and half of which cause neurological, cardiovascular, endocrinal, and immunological damage. These are just the impacts felt by the local communities engaged in extraction. The transportation of fossil fuels releases coal dust in communities along coal train routes, leads to fatalities from explosive methane gas pipelines, and leads to oil spills from supertankers and pipelines – releasing thousands of barrels of oil in environmentally sensitive areas and communities that depend on their environment. Then, the fossil fuels are burned. Wherever they are burned – power plants, refineries, and internal combustion engines, they release air pollutants causing chronic respiratory ailments, acid rain that leads to acidification of aquatic and forest ecosystems, and particulate matter that creates smog and leads to bronchitis and aggravated asthma. Additionally, fossil-fuel power plants require huge quantities of fresh water – in the U.S. fossil fuel and nuclear power plants use as much water as all of the farms, and four times as much as all of the households. Over 80% of this fresh water comes from lakes and rivers, directly competing with freshwater sources for agriculture and consumption. The water, once used, is in some cases dumped back into the environment, causing thermal pollution that disrupts native ecosystems. On top of all of these harms sits the climate change consequences of greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting environmental injustice. 2. A recent study found that in 2018, more than 8 million people died prematurely from particulate matter pollution due to fossil fuel combustion, accounting for about 18% of annual deaths worldwide. (Vohra et al. 2021, “Global mortality from outdoor fine particle pollution generated by fossil fuel combustion: Results from GEOS-Chem”) 3. An article on the fossil fuel supply chain describes how the industry has led to multiple physical, social, and economic injuries on every social scale, impacting communities everywhere and at all stages of the fossil fuel cycle. Importantly, the article addresses resource nationalism and the military action used to secure access to fossil fuels. The reliance of an economy on oil exports is directly proportional to its level of political corruption, and inversely proportional to its stability – the greater a nation’s reliance on oil revenues in the economy the more corrupt and the less politically stable it is. While the article’s main focus is on the fossil fuel industry, the discussion concludes with the perspective that a shift to renewable energy will bring not only environmental and health benefits but also economic stability in energy markets, energy security, and more peaceful and democratic global politics. (Olson and Lenzmann 2016. “The social and economic consequences of the fossil fuel supply chain”)

4. A comprehensive life-cycle assessment of the environmental impacts of electricity generation systems compares two scenarios, IEA “Baseline” and “BLUE Map” (50% of 2005 emissions by 2050) electricity mixes. The study finds that, while the use of some resources (iron, copper, aluminum, cement) is dramatically increased for renewable energy generation, replacing fossil fuel electricity with renewable sources leads to big reductions in CO2 emissions, particulate matter emissions (air pollution), aquatic ecotoxicity (water pollution), freshwater eutrophication (algal blooms), and land use. (Hertwich et al. 2015. "Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies") 5. A life-cycle assessment of an Internal Combustion Engine Vehicle (ICEV) vs. a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) finds that the battery only contributes a small amount (15%) to the total environmental impact of an electric vehicle, and that lithium mining is only a small fraction (2.3%) of the environmental impact of the battery. Overall, a combustion-engine car has a greater environmental burden than an electric car using any of four reported metrics – abiotic depletion potential (nonliving, non-renewable resource depletion), nonrenewable cumulative energy demand, global warming potential, and Ecoindicator 99 H/A (a metric of environmental impact that includes impacts to human health, ecosystem quality, and resource depletion). (Notter et al. 2010. "Contribution of Li-ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles") The conclusion of this brief review is that the environmental damages, harms to human health, and social injustices already caused by the fossil fuel industry are vast and globally present. Any shift towards renewable energy infrastructure will make the world cleaner, healthier, and more just, even considering the negative impacts of materials’ sourcing for clean energy. Promisingly, there is awareness within the clean energy industry of the problems associated with mineral sourcing. Ongoing developments in the recycling of critical materials, substitution of minerals, and less materially-intensive green energy technologies will reduce the negative impacts of the clean energy industry. In addition, mitigation and compensation policies for those directly affected by mining and support for public transportation programs instead of single-occupancy electrical vehicles could help reduce the impact of mineral extraction. On the path towards a more environmentally just society, the question “What about the Lithium?” should not stand in the way of removing the harms caused by the fossil fuel industry.

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