Electric cars, batteries and the European mining-extractivist fever

Electric cars, batteries and the European mining-extractivist fever

That there is an important deposit of lithium on the Hispanic-Colombian border, that the border itself is the European lithium paradise, in recent months the press has been peppered with this type of news.

Due to its light weight and the large amount of energy it retains, lithium is the essential component of batteries. And batteries are now the key technology in the sectors of electric mobility, renewable energies and digitization, in a word, for the accumulation of energy.

The energy transition that is consolidated in European and global policies, undoubtedly contributes to increasing very rapidly the demand for raw materials for batteries, which is expected to multiply tenfold in the next eleven years.

According to data from the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission, in the case of lithium, demand will multiply by 46, and there may be a deficit. The European Commission considers a “competitive, safe, sustainable” production of raw materials key to ensure agility to profit and obtain benefits and to maintain the leadership of the European Union.

Mining companies, for their part, think about taking advantage of theboom to speculate on the price, as lithium does not trade like gold in global commodity markets.

A key product

Currently, components for batteries are imported from Asia and Europe aims to reduce this dependence at all costs. This was made clear by the German Minister of Economy and Energy, Peter Altmeier at a recent press conference in Berlin together with the Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of the Energy Union, Maroš Šefcovic.

There the minister declared that "German and European manufacturers must immediately catch up and become competitive." And they announced, among other measures, their intention to channel one billion euros until 2021 to build a major battery factory in Germany. Its aim is to encourage European battery production to cover 30% of world demand by 2030 and to guarantee significant shares of added value to electric vehicles, of which the battery is the most valuable component.

Strategic issue for the European economy

Ensuring access "as painless" as possible to raw materials that will give us the journey to the energy transition and help us complete digitization. The energy transition means reducing dependence on fossil fuels, an urgency in line with that of stopping climate change and complying with the Paris Agreement (which, although it is essential to force States to comply with it, certainly leaves much to be desired in terms of achieve real sustainability).

Everything is "sustainable" and "saves the climate"

And the lithium batteries of the German minister will not be anything, but will have to constitute "an international reference, reflect European standards and have high storage capacity, they will be durable, quickly rechargeable, recyclable, at competitive prices and of course sustainable and production environmentally friendly". The question is: how do you plan to do it?

I have been arguing that the European Union wants to position itself as a strong actor in the global supply chain. We must not lose sight of the fact that one of Germany's main objectives beyond - or before? - the climatic ones is to strengthen the automobile industry. The argument of this sector is basically that maintaining the climatic goals in transport helps to increase the demand for batteries. When its CO2 emissions scandal has not yet been erased, the German automotive sector sharpens its ingenuity to take advantage especially of this confluence of mere business interests - manufacturing many cars and their corresponding batteries - disguised as climate action. And the German state gets down to work to help.

Extractive “paradises” fallen from the sky

The European Union sees it like this: many prospecting areas are being explored below their potential and there are a large number of exploration projects currently dormant and it intends to enhance them and even work towards their “social acceptability”, whatever that means.

For this reason, suddenly Spain and Portugal seem to take on an important role as “lithium paradises”. Countries in which mining companies are interested in exploring geologically overnight for who knows if they will then give way to the well-known mining projects that are giving so many headaches to local communities in these regions. A paradigmatic case is the city of Cáceres, in Extremadura (Spain), where they intend to open a mine to exploit lithium for 25 years at the very gates of the city, just 3 km away. from the center and 2 from the hospital (!). The alarmed population is strongly against it, it should go without saying.

It should not be forgotten that the new mining projects in Europe contain many lies, dance of numbers tailored to the interests of their promoters and great risks of different considerations that include environmental and social aspects, all in the midst of a great darkness and lack of information and a high speculative component. Conflict grows around the concessioned and active mining projects - not without reason, dividing the communities, the families.

Millions of batteries

If the projects they are announcing go ahead - and it is now that we have seen a clear and express priority of the German government and its growth policies at all costs - the announced large-scale battery manufacturing industry will be created very soon. “For Europe to be able to confront the great competition that exists on a global level, it has to regain ground to strengthen all steps of the battery value chain starting from the first, the safe and sustainable supply of raw materials for the manufacturing industry. of batteries ”, the politicians declare satisfied.

The balance of the planet and social license

I don't know if as a society we consider this to be good or bad news. At the moment there is no such debate in the depth required and I am particularly concerned about this point. If the lithium from Spain or Portugal is exploited, although no one will explain it to us clearly, everything indicates that it would be used to supply German industry and I do not know if it would also be used for alleged factories that say they will continue to open the mines lithium everywhere.

Logic dictates that it is better to supply European industry with European raw materials, extracted in Europe itself, rather than continue plundering in the way customary to countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America. As long as there are communities that reject the projects - an increasingly common situation, mining should not be allowed simply, neither in places of the Global South, nor in parts of Europe like Cáceres, nor anywhere else.

The ore concentration and profitability of European deposits may be far from what they say. And the industry is not going to settle at all with the lithium that can get to scratch in Spain and Portugal. The EU also continues to undeniably extend its grip on lithium from the Andean countries. These may be richer in the element, which in their case is found in unique places - many times protected - and territories of peasant and indigenous communities.

And the fragile balance of the planet very soon will not be able to afford any of these projects, neither there, nor here. Whether or not the authorities, mining companies and even those who talk about the energy transition to renewable energies like it or not, we must continue to make visible the problems associated with extraction and the extractivist “logic” and neocolonialism behind it.

A priority is to make visible the multiple resistance to mining, listen carefully to the arguments because there are political spaces that are denying this reality. And raise awareness about the social and environmental dimension of the mining boom and find post-extractivist and alternative paths.

By Guadalupe Rodríguez (@ecologistadelno)

Video: 5 New Battery Technologies That Could CHANGE EVERYTHING (October 2020).