I ride an electric bike. So, I’m part of the problem of exacerbating the demand for batteries. I wrote recently about the human and environmental challenges of seeing battery technology as being the single solution.
When vehicles were in their infancy at the start of last century oil was seen as the single solution for fuel. Now we are jumping into another single solution. A friend of mine with an all-electric car pointed out to me that her car had a higher carbon footprint than my diesel Ute right now because the power going into charging up her batteries is coming from a coal fired power station in the North Island.
In the article below in the Guardian the writer highlights the plight of the indigenous people and the local environment created by multi-national companies which are mining lithium in their area. Here’s some quotes from the article:
In the mining installations, which occupy more than 78 sq km (30 sq miles) and are operated by multinationals SQM and Albemarle, brine is pumped to the surface and arrayed in evaporation ponds resulting in a lithium-rich concentrate; viewed from above, the pools are shades of chartreuse. The entire process uses enormous quantities of water in an already parched environment. As a result, freshwater is less accessible to the 18 indigenous Atacameño communities that live on the flat’s perimeter, and the habitats of species such as Andean flamingoes have been disrupted. This situation is exacerbated by climate breakdown-induced drought and the effects of extracting and processing copper, of which Chile is the world’s top producer. Compounding these environmental harms, the Chilean state has not always enforced indigenous people’s right to prior consent.
The article continues:
These facts raise an uncomfortable question that reverberates around the world: does fighting the climate crisis mean sacrificing communities and ecosystems? The supply chains that produce green technologies begin in extractive frontiers like the Atacama desert. And we are on the verge of a global boom in mining linked to the energy transition. A recent report published by the International Energy Agency states that meeting the Paris greement’s climate targets would send demand skyrocketing for the “critical minerals” used to produce clean energy technologies. The figures are particularly dramatic for the raw materials used to manufacture electric vehicles: by 2040, the IEA forecasts that demand for lithium will have increased 42 times relative to 2020 levels.
The transition to a new energy system is often understood as a conflict between incumbent fossil fuel firms and proponents of climate action. As existential as this conflict is, battles between competing visions of a low-carbon world are intensifying – and they will become increasingly central to politics across the world. These competing visions reflect the reality that there are multiple paths to rapid decarbonisation. The question is not whether to decarbonise, but how.
A transportation system based on individual electric vehicles, for example, with landscapes dominated by highways and suburban sprawl, is much more resource- and energy-intensive than one that favours mass transit and alternatives such as walking and cycling. Likewise, lowering overall energy demand would reduce the material footprint of technologies and infrastructure that connect homes and workplaces to the electricity grid. And not all demand for battery minerals must be sated with new mining: recycling and recovering metals from spent batteries is a promising replacement, especially if governments invest in recycling infrastructure and make manufacturers use recycled content.
The article concludes:
Chilean activists are clear: there is no zero-sum conflict between fighting climate breakdown and preserving local environments and livelihoods.
Indigenous communities in the Atacama desert are also on the frontlines of the devastating impacts of global heating. Rather than an excuse to intensify mining, the accelerating climate crisis should be an impetus to transform the rapacious and environmentally harmful patterns of production and consumption that caused this crisis in the first place.
This article reinforces my concern about our obsession with battery technology. Maybe what we need is balance. So those who rubbish the Minister of Transport for advocating a bridge over Auckland harbour may just be wrong. He might just be a realistic visionary, and those who are sitting in judgement of him are just stuck in analysis which has passed its use-by-date.
Here’s the article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/14/electric-cost-lithium-mining-decarbonasation-salt-flats-chile
The Economist this week wrote on a similar topic:
As well as monitoring biodiversity, technology can also be deployed to protect it. And in some cases, it may even be able to reverse losses, by bringing extinct species back from the dead. Ironically, it is humanity’s use of technology, whether in simple forms such as chainsaws or dragnets, or more complex ones such as modern agriculture and transportation, that is chiefly responsible for biodiversity loss. The challenge now is to deploy it so that it is not just part of the problem, but part of the solution.
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