Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Lithium: Unintended Environmental Consequences of Green Technology

The reality of all green technologies is that there is an environmental cost to developing them. Any kind of consumption that includes putting something together in a machine means that resources have to be gathered from somewhere. One of the most popular green technologies is cars that run on lithium batteries. This is a much better and cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

But where does lithium come from? What do we have to do to get it? What are the environmental costs of acquiring lithium? And how much is there in the world? These are all key questions we need to be asking as we develop these technologies.

This very interesting Times article shows that the world's largest known lithium reserves are under the Uyuni Salt Flats of Bolivia. There are several tricky issues to acquiring these resources. First is Evo Morales' determination to get Bolivia off of resource exploitation and to ensure a fair profit for his people if foreign companies do develop resources.

I'd like to focus on another issue though. The salt flats are the entrance to one of the world's great wildernesses, the altiplano of southwestern Bolivia. Having visited here last summer, I can say that I have never been more isolated in my life. This is an amazing, rugged, and almost totally unpopulated place. For most people, the appeal of the 4 day tour of the area is the salt flats. This is the center of the small but growing Bolivian tourist industry.

Mining this lithium would have untold effects on the salt flats and would go a long ways to destroying the tourist industry. The leading argument Bolivians might make for the mining is that it would provide jobs and help pull them out of poverty. If this were in fact true, it's a legitimate argument. But multinational mining corporations are not exactly known for their labor or environmental standards, and while they might provide jobs, if they are jobs like they provide everywhere else in the world, it's hard to see people's lives improving. On the other hand, if the minerals are nationalized and any agreements ensure labor rights, it's something to consider.

This gets at the core question of environment vs. jobs. This is a false question though. An active tourist industry would provide lots of jobs for people--it's about all going on in Uyuni right now. With better infrastructure and strong national leadership, it's certainly possible that Bolivia could turn itself into an international tourist destination that might make more money than lithium mining.

But then, don't we want that lithium for our "green" cars? Is the sacrifice of this beautiful, remote, and surreal place worth a new consumer technology that is supposed to solve many of our problems? I am skeptical because I don't believe technology can solve our problems and that the mining of lithium will have unintended social and environmental consequences that will severely detract from whatever positives it may provide. And like many minerals, there are limited supplies on the earth and a widespread conversion to lithium to power our cars will create "peak lithium" on the same level as "peak oil" very quickly.