The New Oil?

The world finds itself in the middle of a environmental crisis – some even claim, at the brink of a catastrophe. One of the main causes of the global warming has been the abuse of natural resources – primarily of the nonrenewables petroleum, coal, natural gas (but also of renewable resources such as timber). It is not so that extraction of nonrenewable resources is bad in itself – but by doing so in a heavily unsustainable way we have caused an accelerating climate change and other severe environmental problems. There are many ideas what to do against it – a central one is the so called “energy revolution”, a switch from fossil energy sources (i.e., petroleum, coal, gas) to renewable ones. But: for the latter to function we need storage options. And here a new problem seems approaching.

For the time being, one of the main options for energy storage – at least in the smaller scale, e.g. in laptops, telephones, and increasingly cars (a sector contributing very much to the global greenhouse gas emissions) – are accumulators based on lithium-ions.

Lithium is a metal, i.e., a nonrenewable resource. There are huge reserves of lithium in South America (especially Bolivia), and since the world price is climbing, South American governments and international corporations are turning their eyes to the reserves.

The eagerness of international actors to engage in lithium extracting in South America (and elsewhere) may have profound environmental and social consequences. As you can read in this German article there are already first signs of protest from indigenous communities who see their livelihood endangered through the sinking groundwater level. Furthermore, there are species threatened through the extraction, e.g. flamingos living in the salt lakes where most lithium lies underground.

Bolivia is the country particularly eager to profit from the resources lying there (assessed to be as much as 50 % of the world lithium reserves). This is good on the one hand, but, on the other, it brings with it the danger of a new resource curse: too much concentration on the extracting industry may cause losing sight of others and thus contribute to the inequalities already being a main challenge in the Third World – a problem all too common in the developing countries.

It is somewhat paradoxical that while wanting to overcome one resource based crisis we are stepping into a possible another one. Would we start relying too much on lithium, future problems would be built-in. Instead, we should finally accept the fact that we have to change our consumption patterns making sustainable exploitation of natural resources possible. Then it would not matter that much whether they are oil, lithium or whatever else.

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