Lithium will play a fundamental role in the energy transition, but what is the production outlook? Is it possible to boost industry growth while minimizing the negative impacts on the environment and the communities living in the extraction areas? Experts and stakeholders agree on a number of questions. For example: lithium mining in salt flats creates sustainability concerns that must be mitigated and avoided through the implementation of the necessary measures, even at the cost of impacting —or even disrupting— such activities. With the auspices of the Green Dealings network, we prepared jointly with CENIT this paper that presents the opinions of specialists on the challenges and horizons for fair and sustainable lithium mining in salt flats.
The promise of lithium
The energy transition is a widely accepted solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing this issue worldwide. Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial technology in achieving this, since they play a key role in decarbonizing transportation, which accounts for roughly a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. The growth of electromobility has driven increased demand for certain minerals, required to produce the batteries that store the energy used by electric vehicles.
Argentina, Bolivia and Chile conform the so-called “lithium triangle”, a region that concentrates 53% of the world’s lithium resources and around 80% of those found in salt brines. As demand for lithium increases, new economic opportunities emerge for these countries. However, there are risks of negative impacts on the environment and the populations living in the areas where lithium is being extracted, while opportunities to develop productive and technological capabilities remain unseized.
Resource-rich countries’ governments are tasked with regulating and monitoring the impact of mining and thus primarily responsible for guaranteeing compliance with sustainability conditions, along with operators. They are also responsible for implementing policies and strategies to use lithium as a leverage for socioeconomic, scientific, technological and productive development at national and regional levels.
Is there a fairer and more sustainable way to conduct lithium extraction activities in salt flats? What is the opinion of experts?
To steer towards a more sustainable and equitable value chain for lithium-ion batteries, it is essential to understand the perspectives of the various stakeholders involved, explored by Green Dealings research project through a survey carried out in the second half of 2022. The survey gathered expert opinions on the main challenges affecting the sustainability of lithium mining in salt flats and how they could be addressed.
We invited more than 600 players in the global lithium battery supply chain from around the world, who participated anonymously, confidentially and in their individual capacity. Most of the experts were from Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, with a predominance of scholars, followed by industry, government, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations. It was not possible to secure participation from any members of indigenous communities, which poses a limitation for the interpretation of the results, since these communities are among the most affected by the sustainability issues of lithium mining.
The survey was conducted using the Delphi method, which consists of assembling a panel of experts and inviting them to answer a questionnaire (Round 1). After analyzing the results, the findings are returned to the group of specialists, who are then asked to answer the questions again in an attempt to reach consensus among the responses obtained (Round 2).
This report presents a summary of the results of the second round of responses. It is organized into two segments: the challenge of sustainability, analyzed from three different angles (environmental, social and economic), and the question of a fair value chain for countries with lithium mining in salt flats, their territories and the communities that dwell in them.
Towards sustainable lithium production in salt flats
The findings of the survey show broad consensus that lithium mining in salt flats poses significant sustainability challenges. Seventy-seven percent of participants agreed that this problem should be addressed as a priority, even if it means slowing down or even suspending mining activity.
Challenges to environmental sustainability
According to the panel, environmental challenges are a priority. The issues that require the most attention are linked to the impact of mining activities on the water balance of the watershed and on the biodiversity of the area where mining is carried out. Secondly, there are social challenges. In this regard, it is important to emphasize the need for better coexistence of mining activities with regional economies, while respecting the social and cultural practices of the communities around the salt flats or related with them.
Challenges to economic sustainability
Regarding economic sustainability issues, it was emphasized that countries with abundant lithium resources need to increase their ability to capture the value created on their soil. Two approaches were highlighted to achieve this goal: first, for local communities to receive a larger portion of the benefits; and second, for mining to forge stronger relations with the participants in the country’s production and innovation system.
Challenges to social sustainability
Finally, when it comes to social challenges, it is important to emphasize the need for better coexistence of mining activities with regional economies, while respecting the social and cultural practices of the communities around the salt flats or related with them.
Addressing sustainability challenges
The survey inquired into the type of initiatives or policies fit to address sustainability challenges, and most responses pointed to those aimed at establishing participatory and multi-stakeholder consultation mechanisms that engage the groups involved in problem-solving and planning. Likewise, reference was also made to the importance of increasing state investment to build capacities in national and subnational governments in areas such as monitoring, oversight, information production and transparency.
The selected proposals are aligned with the challenges identified by the panel regarding the governance of lithium mining. In this area, responses focused on the need to strengthen the capacities of state control institutions and promote greater transparency and access to information. Regarding the issue of which actors should lead the design and implementation process of the prioritized policies, results showed high consistency across all intervention areas. In the first place, respondents underscore the role of governments, both national and subnational, and secondly, the role of civil society, mainly local communities and those in the national science and technology sectors, followed by mining companies operating within the territories.
Towards a fair value chain
Finally, the survey inquired about the issue of justice. The panel was asked about the conditions necessary for ensuring equitable conditions across the lithium battery value chain in countries with lithium mining in their salt flats. In the opinion of experts, the idea of justice is closely tied to issues of economic sustainability, above environmental and social sustainability. The main condition cited by the panel was for local communities to obtain economic benefits from lithium mining. Secondly, for lithium-importing countries to promote compliance with social and environmental standards and the transfer of capacities to lithium-producing countries.
When asked about the main obstacles for the battery value chain to be fair for the countries where lithium is extracted, the results are similar to those reported in the area of sustainability. In the experts’ view, the main obstacle lies with the institutional weaknesses and poor state capacities in producing countries. Secondly, the panel highlighted the asymmetric resources available to importing and producing countries.
These findings offer a broad and consensual view on the need to prioritize the sustainability challenges associated with lithium brine extraction, even if it means slowing down or suspending mining activity. They seek to make a significant contribution to the debate and formulation of policies and strategies related to lithium-ion batteries, in pursuit of a fair and sustainable energy transition.