It was a striking image; the colorful tent camp that was set up in August in front of the Supreme Court in the middle of the city of Buenos Aires. Here, a group of indigenous communities campaigned to protect their historic lands in Jujuy province. Some of them arrived here after a protest march of almost 2,000 kilometers. In Jujuy itself – which is located in the so-called ‘lithium triangle’ on the border between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina – there were fierce protests at the same time. The reason was a new law that would deny local communities the right to their land in order to make lithium mining possible.
In the meantime, we in the Netherlands are working hard to replace our petrol cars with electric ones to reduce our CO2emissions – an absolute necessity for achieving the climate goals. From 2035, only electric cars may be sold in the EU. And at the same time, here’s the rub: electric cars do not directly cause CO2emissions, but they do have consequences for the environment. In this case, this mainly concerns raw materials such as the metal lithium, used in batteries.
Due to the rising demand for electric cars, the global demand for lithium is skyrocketing. By some estimates, by as much as 750 percent. And more than half of the global supply of lithium lies in the vulnerable nature reserves of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. No wonder this is causing great concern among the local population.
Because lithium mining is controversial: as with all mining, its impact on the local environment is enormous. The production of one kilo of lithium from the salt flats of Argentina requires hundreds to thousands of liters of water, in places where water is extremely scarce. This is at the expense of agriculture and drinking water. And paradoxically, ecosystems that release CO2 are lost at the same time2 capturing it and converting it into oxygen, which only worsens the climate crisis.
It’s also unfair. The negative consequences of mining are borne by communities such as in Jujuy, but they do not benefit from it themselves. You won’t see them driving around in Teslas. Instead, ‘sacrifice zones’ are emerging in these areas, where denuded and depleted landscapes only exist to export raw materials for our new, supposedly more sustainable world.
The energy transition means a shift in thinking and doing in all respects. It is a system change. This also applies to the way we move. The solution to our climate and environmental problems is not to replace our entire fleet with electric SUVs. Because in general, the larger and heavier the car, the larger the batteries and the more lithium is needed. And yet the average car in the European Union has become 250 kilos (almost 20 percent) heavier in twenty years.
So we will have to make do with fewer cars, smaller cars and more public transport. And the ways forward are there. Because research by The Climate and Community Project shows that if we produce smaller cars and invest in better sharing systems and public transport, we can reduce the demand for lithium by up to 66 percent in the future.
Some mining will remain necessary, but sustainable mining is a myth. A price is also paid for our electric cars – just like for those that run on petrol and diesel – but unfortunately often out of our sight. Let us, and the next government, use the energy transition to also make a transition in how we think about our transport from here to Argentina.